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Arkansas Teacher of the Year: Jonathan Crossley

Posted By Kathy Smith, Wednesday, November 20, 2013

By Kathy Smith, senior program officer at the Walton Family Foundation, responsible for the Arkansas K-12 education reform initiative that promotes systemic reform, using the principles of accountability, transparency, choice, and incentives. Kathy has spent more than 30 years in public education in Oklahoma and Arkansas, first as a high school English teacher and eventually moving to district secondary curriculum director.

As an educator and a passionate advocate for quality education in the Arkansas Delta, I love days like yesterday (November 18th). I was thrilled to join Governor Mike Beebe and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell as they named Jonathan Crossley the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. The foundation is a longtime supporter of the Teacher of the Year program, providing $1,000 awards to finalists and a $14,000 award to the winner.

Mr. Crossley teaches at Palestine Wheatley High School in Palestine, Arkansas, and is also a Teach For America alumnus. The work he is doing and the success he is having are exactly the results the foundation hoped for as we began investing in regional education initiatives more than 20 years ago.

Commissioner Kimbrell cited Mr. Crossley’s impressive student achievement scores and innovative, student-led teaching approach as standing out in a very impressive group of candidates. As one would expect, his commitment to his students goes beyond his classroom where he teaches 11th and 12th grade English and oral communication. He is also the drama director, the literacy coach for grades six through 12, and he was the girls’ basketball coach from 2010-13.

Please join me in congratulating Jonathan Crossley for this prestigious accomplishment and his dedication to improving the quality of his students’ lives through education.

Tags:  Arkansas  Education  Teach for America  Teacher of the Year 

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Why Arkansas Learns?

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Thursday, October 3, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013

Just over a year ago, on August 1, 2012, we launched Arkansas Learns, the private sector alliance of parents, employers and citizens dedicated to excellent education for all students to ensure the talent and workforce necessary for Arkansas to successfully compete in a global economy.

Finally, consumers would have a voice in the local and state governance of public education.

Why is this necessary? For decades, the now 238 local school boards in Arkansas and their respective superintendents have utilized two distinct third-party organizations (Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators - AAEA, Arkansas School Boards Association - ASBA) to lobby the Legislature and Administration on behalf of their members.

Add in the teachers' union (Arkansas Education Association - AEA), and three private organizations - termed by some legislative leaders as education's Iron Triangle - have long dominated local and state education policy in Arkansas.

Why do these third-party organizations utilize $8,648,978 in annual public and private revenue and 42 employees to advance their respective agendas (see details below)? Because PreK through 12 public education in Arkansas is a $5.3 billion dollar industry, accounting for 47% of all state general revenue and around 2/3 of local property taxes.

And what is the public's return on that investment?

  • One in five students don't graduate;
  • One of every two post-secondary students requires remediation; and
  • We remain 49th in percentage of our people with a four-year degree.

And yet, when Arkansas Learns has the audacity to insist that we can and should do better, it is labelled by its powerful detractors as oppositional to traditional public schools. Here are the facts:

Local vs. State Leadership

In communities across Arkansas, the local school district is typically the largest local government entity, generally dwarfing respective city and county budgets. It is also among the largest employers, depositors and consumers.

Because it is a statewide organization, Arkansas Learns defers to the local business community leadership in regard to engagement with the local school district and its elected and employed leaders.

However, when those local districts join together to fund statewide lobbies which advocate for the collective interests of their members (incumbent school board members and hired administrators), local business communities, chambers of commerce, and economic development organizations must step up to support a statewide group of its own (Arkansas Learns) to advocate for the best interests of students.

The Challenge

While parents have flocked to Arkansas Learns, business support of its new organization has been guarded. Typical justifications for not joining include:

  • My children were/are in private (or home) school, so I don't speak publicly about public education.
  • I do business with the school district(s), so I can't be seen supporting an organization they oppose.
  • I don't want to do anything to upset our superintendent.

By all means, business should support its local school district when it performs, and help it even more when it doesn't. But business should also understand, when local districts' collective lobbyists place the interests of their members over the best interests of students, they must be countered by an effective, broad-based, private sector coalition.

Call to Action

Economic development is now driven by talent. Communities which can't, don't or won't excellently educate all of their students will certainly fail.

While Arkansas Learns goes toe-to-toe with AAEA, ASBA and AEA on many issues, we are shoulder-to-shoulder in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Further, we celebrate excellence throughout our traditional public school systems whenever and wherever it exists by fighting for rewards for high performing and achievement gap-narrowing students, teachers, schools and districts.

Ultimately, Arkansas Learns is an ends over means organization. We support what works and oppose what doesn't.

If you're an Arkansas employer, you must have an educated workforce in order to be successful. And that workforce requires excellence at every stage of the PreK through16 talent pipeline.

Arkansas's incumbent school board members, administrators and union teachers are all in for their members with their time and treasure. It's time business went all in for students.

No matter your level of support, join us at Arkansas Learns today. Because when Arkansas learns, Arkansas earns.


Special Interests

Here are the numbers on the aforementioned education lobbies:

501(c)4 Organizations

IRC 501(c)(4) provides for exemption of:

  • Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.
  • Local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.

The statutory terms disclose that IRC 501(c)(4) embraces two general classifications:

a. Social welfare organizations, and
b. Local associations of employees.

Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) is a 501(c)4 organization and receives public funds from its respective member school districts.

  • Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA)
    • Twenty-one (21) Employees (According to
    • Ended Fiscal Year 6.30.11 with $3,965,779 in Net Assets or Fund Balance
    • $387,072 (Membership Fees)
    • $220,260 (Policy Service Income)
    • $173,155 (State Conference Income)
    • $49,795 (New Board Member Workshop)
    • $30,413 (Commercial Affiliate Fees)
    • $10,769 (Investment Income)
    • $901,431 (Administration Fee, Workers’ Compensation)
    • $414,491 (Administration Fee, Risk Management)
    • $106,965 (TAPS Royalties)
    • $2,459,283 Total Revenue

501(c)6 Organizations

IRC 501(c)(6) provides for exemption of business leagues, chambers ofcommerce, real estate boards, boards of trade, and professional footballleagues (whether or not administering a pension fund for football players),which are not organized for profit and no part of the net earnings of whichinures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA), Arkansas Education Association (AEA), and Arkansas Learns are 501(c)6 organizations. The difference: AEA and Arkansas Learns are privately funded by their respective members. AAEA receives public funds from their superintendents' respective school districts.

  • Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA)
    • Eight (8) employees (According to
    • Ended Fiscal Year 6.30.2012 with $3,152,681 in Net Assets or Fund Balance
    • $514,550 (Membership Revenue)
    • $95,500 (Government Grants)
    • $1,490,341 (Conferences, Publication Income, Certification Fees, Online Job Service, Miscellaneous)
    • $2,199,879 Total Revenue
  • Arkansas Education Association (AEA)
    • Thirteen (13) Employees (According to
    • Ended Fiscal Year 8.31.2012 with $884,433 in Net Assets or Fund Balance
    • $3,556,240 (Member Dues)
    • $1,911 (Investment Income)
    • $19,500 (Rental Income)
    • $19,302 (Subscriptions)
    • $160 (Miscellaneous)
    • $3,989,816 Total Revenue
    • $17,800 (Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities)
  • Arkansas Learns
    • One (1) Employee
    • $363,800 Total Revenue

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Students Missing from LREA/AEA/NEA Priorities

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Friday, August 23, 2013

Want to know the priorities of the Little Rock/Arkansas/National Education Associations (LREA/AEA/NEA)? Read their Little Rock School Board Candidate Questionnaire below. I dare you to find the word "student." 

1. Why do you wish to serve on the school board?

2. a) What do you see as the major problems facing the school district?

b) If elected, what solutions or ideas would you offer to for resolving the problems you’ve noted?

3. Please review your qualifications or expertise in the following:
A) School Finance and Budgeting
B) Policies
C) Personnel
D) Instruction & Curriculum

4. What other insights and abilities do you feel you can bring to the position of school board member?

5. a) Are you aware of the salary and benefits offered to employees in LRSD?

b) What impact do you believe the salaries and benefits provided by LRSD have on recruiting and retaining the best possible employees?

c) Currently, the Arkansas Employees Benefits Division is deciding the percentage increase in employee health care premium. The increase has the potential to be as high at 44%. How do you propose dealing with this substantial increase to mitigate the impact on LRSD employees?

6. Would you, as a school board member, continue to support the right of the Little Rock Education Association to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the school district with salaries, working conditions and other matters of professional concern?

7. What types of things do you believe the school district can do to improve community relations and build more community support?

8. What do you feel is the appropriate use of standardized tests? Should results of these tests be used to evaluate teachers or determine teacher pay?

9. If elected, during your term LRSD could potentially build two schools. Where do you stand on a comprehensive school facilities improvement plan so that other sites are not allowed to decline further? Where do you stand on a potential millage campaign to improve our physical structures, technology, etc.? How would you, as a school board member, take a lead in a millage campaign?

10. If recommended by LREA, what role do you see school employees and the association playing in your campaign?

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State, Public School Employees: Same Insurance Plan, Vastly Different Out-of-Pocket

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This morning (August 21, 2013), Andy Davis reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that 'Public-school teachers face insurance rise, Plan costlier by 50% OK'd.'

The same article shared that state employees' insurance premiums would only rise by 1%.

Why the wide discrepancy in out-of-pocket employee costs for the same plan? State employees receive $148.70 (Bronze, Employee Only) to $862.54 (Gold, Employee & Family) in public subsidy, while public school employees receive just $41.78 (Bronze, Employee Only) to $377.36 (Gold, Employee & Family) in state funding.

An additional $131 (rising to $150 in January) is contributed by the respective school districts, except in Pulaski County, where state desegregation funding may be used for teacher benefits.

Subsequently, the monthly employee out-of-pocket costs per Public School Employee for the most basic plan (Bronze, Employee Only) is $10, while the State Employee's is $0.00. Conversely, the top plan (Gold, Employee and Family) is $1,029.96 for Public School Employees, but only $419.62 for State Employees.

And that's before the up to 50% rate increase.

As for how these rates compare to the private sector, Robert Costrell, Professor of Education Reform and Economics/Endowed Chair in Education Accountability at the University of Arkansas, has analyzed the issue from a national perspective in 'Rising Costs of Teachers' Health Care. Costs for teachers' health insurance in 2012 were, on average, 26% higher than those for private sector professional employees.

Further, his pension analysis, 'Teacher Pension Costs: High, Rising and Out of Control,'  showed that while the private sector pension costs are relatively stable at around 10.5% of salaries, school costs have climbed from 11.9% of salaries in March 2004 to 14.6% in March 2013.

When it comes to public school funding, the terms of art are "adequate and equitable." Perhaps those words should also apply when it comes to treatment of public employee health insurance costs.

Public School Employees

State Employees

Summary Plan Descriptions
Summary of Benefits and Coverage - Bronze
Summary of Benefits and Coverage - Silver
Summary of Benefits and Coverage - Gold

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Gary Newton Comments: First Annual Meeting of Arkansas Learns

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Friday, May 31, 2013
Updated: Friday, May 31, 2013

The following remarks were delivered by Gary Newton, President and CEO of Arkansas Learns, on the occasion of the organization's first Annual Meeting, at noon, Thursday, May 30, 2013 in the Wally Allen Ballroom of the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.


Good afternoon, I'm Gary Newton, and following the promotion this morning of my Don Roberts Elementary Fifth Graders, it is my privilege to welcome you to the First Annual Meeting of Arkansas Learns, the new voice of employers, parents and citizens dedicated to excellent education for all students.

First, let's thank the Little Rock Central High String Quartet for sharing their talents with us today. Our musicians are all completing their Freshman year and include:

  • Angela Wang and Katherine Hale, Violins
  • Anna Norman, Viola
  • Jonah Davidson, Cello

We'll enjoy hearing more from them during lunch.

Today's event is presented by Delta Dental of Arkansas, represented today by President and CEO Ed Choate. Ed, would you and your team please stand and accept the thanks of our members and guests.

Our lunch is presented in partnership with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.

Thank you, Chambers, for your business and economic development leadership and for your support to ensure the talent and workforce necessary for Arkansas to successfully compete in a global economy.

Finally, our programs and signs are by Drew Simpson our friends at TCPrint Solutions.

Fittingly, we will begin our program with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Monica Velasquez, a graduating senior at Little Rock's eStem High Public Charter School.

To present the colors, we have the 2012 Navy League Most Improved and Distinguished Navy Junior ROTC, featuring:

  • Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander Robyn Willis,
  • Executive Officer Lieutenant Jonathan Christensen,
  • Operations Officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Melissa Swift, and
  • Command Master Chief Andre Calloway

Ladies and Gentlemen, please rise for the Presentation of the Colors by the Little Rock Parkview Arts Science Magnet High School Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Honor Guard.


Thank you Monica and the Parkview Junior ROTC Honor Guard.

Following our invocation, please enjoy the Central High School String Quarter and your lunch, as our program will begin in around 15 minutes.

To deliver our invocation, please welcome a student leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also from Little Rock Central High, who will be playing football next year for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions, Jonathan Watson.

Year in Review/Year Ahead

Thank you again, Little Rock Central High School String Quartet for sharing your talent with us today.

We are fortunate to be joined by special guests too numerous to mention. However, two require a Welcome Back and a Welcome Home, respectively:

At the North Little Rock Chamber table, the new superintendent of the North Little Rock School District, Mr. Kelly Rodgers.

And at the Little Rock Regional Chamber table, the new superintendent of the Little Rock School District, Dr. Dexter Suggs.

Gentlemen, the key to Central Arkansas’s economic development success has been our commitment to regional cooperation. May your two districts join with the County, as well as the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski County School District, to usher in a new generation of leadership committed to collaboration and excellence among schools, cities and our business community.

Further, may your respective boards give you the tools you need to prioritize student success over everything else and free you from the decisions of the past, which stand in your way.


Most everyone agrees, the key to success in public education is parental and community involvement. Arkanas Learns just happens to believe that involvement begins with the recruitment, election and reelection of those who govern public education at the local and state levels.

What has been termed, by a legislative leader in this room, the "Iron Triangle" of education lobbies in our state - the publicly funded Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators and the Arkansas School Boards Association, as well as the public payroll deduction funded Arkansas/National Education Association - have long dominated local and state education governance of our public schools.

For example, of the eight results-oriented bills championed by Arkansas Learns and our partners during the 89th General Assembly, the iron triangle was either opposed or was officially silent on the vast majority.

Still, seven of those bills became law, while one – changing school board elections to the general – made it all the way to the House floor before being killed by 26 members who chose not to vote.

Today, we are pleased to honor those courageous legislators who truly put students first and achieved a 100% A+ voting record on Arkansas Learns’ first Legislative Report Card. While the full Honor Roll list on on your programs, those joining us today include, and please rise when I call your name:

  • Senator and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education Johnny Key
  • Senator Eddie Joe Williams
  • Representative Mark Biviano
  • Representative and Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Education Ann Clemmer
  • At the Little Rock Regional Chamber table, Representative Andy Davis
  • At the Paris Chamber table, Representative Jon Eubanks
  • Representative Andy Mayberry

Those achieving a 100% A Voting record, meaning they either didn’t vote on all the bills or had an expunged vote, are also listed on your program. Since those not voting on the school board election bill essentially killed it, they are not included.

Those joining us today, and again, please rise when i call your name, include:

  • Senator Alan Clark
  • At the Greater Hot Springs Chamber table, Senator Bill Sample

If you’re curious as to who received less than 100%, including the seven Represntatives who received either a D or an F, visit

In our first year start-up, Arkansas Learns has focused on:

  • State government and local school board advocacy;
  • Parent and community mobilization for traditional school district responsiveness and charter school creation; and
  • Public awareness of pre-K through 16 performance.

In just ten days, candidates for the 239 school boards in our state may begin collecting the 20 signatures required to get on the ballot. As we look ahead, Arkansas Learns stands ready to assist our local communities and chambers in the recruitment, training and election of school board candidates with the following core principles:

  • Customer/Student-first Focus
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Innovation and Best Practices
  • Return on Investment

Because we were unsuccessful at the legislature in moving school elections to election day, we will work with local and statewide media to mount a nonpartisan, statewide, school election voter turnout campaign.

By initially and generously funding the start-up of Arkansas Learns, the Walton Family Foundation has given the business community, parents and property taxpayers of our state the gift of a voice for our students. It is now up to the private sector to accept that gift, invest in the organization, and sustain Arkansas Learns’ students-first voice for years to come.

Excellent education for all students is nothing short of the greatest civil rights issue of our time. Communities and states which don’t, won’t or can’t excellently educate all of its students will fail.

So please, join us today at The economic development of our students, families, communities and state depend on it.


Because of time constraints, the following was not delivered in its entirety.

Thank you, Dr. Grier, for your time and effort in joining us today and for your public/private leadership example in putting the needs of students first in every action.

Again, we thank Ed Choate and the team at Delta Dental of Arkansas for presenting our event today, as well as the partnership of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, and the printing of TCPrint Solutions.

We also thank members of our 100% Legislative Honor Roll for your leadership and service.

And finally, we thank all of you, especially our table sponsors, for coming today and for your continued commitment to the vision of Arkansas Learns.

Together, we can insist on excellence throughout public education to ensure the individual, familial, community and state economic development our people deserve.

And once again, please join us at, because when Arkansas learns, Arkansas earns.

Thank you, and good afternoon.

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Stop the Madness

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013

It is oft repeated as conventional wisdom that nothing may be done about the Little Rock School District until we "get out of federal court." But what if "being in federal court" is unrelated to issues of unitary status, which Little Rock has achieved, but is a choice perpetuated by the district itself, upon the advice of its third party, $870,000 per year attorneys?

In the May 15, 2013 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cynthia Howell reports that: "The Little Rock School District is asking a federal appeals court to reverse a lower court decision that cleared the state of violating a 1989 desegregation agreement when it approved the establishment of nearly a dozen independently run, publicly funded charter schools in Pulaski County."

Understand, charter schools didn't exist in Arkansas in 1989. The LRSD's argument is akin to CDs suing digital streaming/download for unfair competition. Damn the most innovative, efficient and effective delivery of what consumers want. The protectionists of business as usual are continuing their presence in federal court in defense of 1989 means - magnet schools and Majority to Minority transfers - over ends - true desegregation results.

According to,

M to M (Majority to Minority) is an interdistrict transfer between students in the Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County Special School District. This transfer option was developed under a Federal Desegregation Court Order and the races were defined as Black and Non-black. Students in the majority race in their home district may request to transfer to a district and school where their race is in the minority. The "receiving" district will determine if seats are available and notify parents in writing if the transfer is approved. Applications must be completed in the "home" or resident district. Transportation is provided by the resident district.

Protectionist traditionalists typically argue against charters saying they have an unfair advantage because it requires a "motivated" parent/guardian to make the single application, leaving, I suppose, "unmotivated" parents/guardians' children in the traditional system. Wouldn't the same theory hold true for those who apply for Majority to Minority transfer? By the LRSD's own definition, we are transferring our "higher performing" African-American students (849 in 2012-13) to the Pulaski County Special School District. 

Thirty-one years ago, when Little Rock initiated its lawsuit against the North Little Rock (NLRSD) and Pulaski County Special School Districts (PCSSD), the percentage difference between black minority and white majority students in PCSSD was 56 points. In 2010, it was 5. With this trend, very soon M to M will no longer be available to African-American parents/guardians, leaving only Magnet Schools as a choice option.

Again, according to,

Magnet schools - schools with a themed program designed to attract students from throughout the central Arkansas area - were introduced in the LRSD during the 1987-88 school year. The six original, or stipulation magnet schools, are "shared" by the three public school districts in Pulaski County - the LRSD, the Pulaski County Special School District and the North Little Rock School District. Although all of these schools are located in the LRSD, seats at these schools are allocated to each district and parents should apply for their child to participate by completing paperwork in their resident district. The stipulation magnet schools are:

  • Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School
  • Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School
  • Booker Arts and Science Magnet Middle School
  • Carver Math and Science Magnet Elementary School
  • Gibbs Magnet Elementary School of Foreign Language and International Studies
  • Williams Traditional Magnet Elementary School

Magnets were designed to be 50/50 black and white (i.e. desegregated). However, for the 2012-13 school year, of the 3,428 students in LRSD stipulation magnets, there were:

  • 974 White (28%)
  • 1,949 Black (57%)
  • 505 Other (15%)

The percentage of white students in magnets is only 8 points more than the white enrollment in the entire district. Meanwhile, the demographic most denied entry into magnets? African-Americans - by the hundreds.

By definition, independent public charter schools are open enrollment. In other words, anybody may attend. Therefore, by lottery, open enrollment charters typically reflect the demographics of their respective communities.

So, the LRSD wants the Court to impose a "weighted lottery system to increase the percentages of black students at what the attorneys called 'magnet' charter schools that feature special academic programs and are drawing white students and more affluent students away from the traditional school districts."

Read that again. The LRSD's attorneys are asking the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to segregate Pulaski County's open enrollment public charter schools. Instead of truly reflecting the demographics of our City (42% Black, 47% White, 11% Other), the LRSD wants charters to match its own increasingly skewed demographics (67% Black, 20% White, 13% Other).

Look out North Little Rock School District. As you embark on your $265.6 million capital improvement plan, reducing your campuses from 21 to 13, better save some for legal defense, as you very likely will be sued again by the LRSD, this time for interfering with its magnets and M to M transfers.

Smarter minds than mine have to remind me that this issue is not about desegregation results. Even after $1.2 billion, the numbers prove desegregation has failed. Rather, this is about whether or not the District and State are doing what the Court directed in 1989.

If it were truly about desegregation, the District would have addressed the biggest exodus of from the District, between the fifth and sixth grades. Between 2010 and 2011, 180 graduating fifth graders left the district. In 2012, it was 324. That means, the LRSD lost 504 students in two years just between fifth and sixth grades. That's two percent of its entire student body. For the same period, overall District enrollment dropped - surprise - 588 students.

This madness has to stop. It's time that the Mayor, City Board, County Judge, Quorum Court, the county's State Senators and Representatives, and Second District Congressman join with the business community, parents, citizens and property taxpayers and insist that LRSD end its appeals and interventions in federal court.

No member of this board was serving when Little Rock initiated this lawsuit. No member of this board was serving when it initially contracted with its third party attorneys. No member of this board was serving when the Little Rock, Pulaski County Special, and North Little Rock School Districts, Joshua Intervenors, and State of Arkansas entered into the failed 1989 settlement agreement.

31 years and $1.2 billion later, this board must give our new superintendent all the tools necessary to successfully compete, not in court, but in the classroom. That means on July 1st, Dr. Suggs must be empowered to execute the policies of the board to ensure students first excellence, and not be hamstrung by the counsel and decisions of attorneys, past and present.

The individual and collective economic development of our students, families, community, region and state depend on it.

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Parent Power

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2013

February 10, 2011. Two years, two months, and thirteen days ago. The night I became an education activist.

As the number two executive at the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, or any chamber for that matter, one's role is to be behind the scenes. Don't speak out, lest your words be interpreted as the position of the organization.

However, following a PTA meeting at Don Roberts Elementary on February 8, 2011, when the immediate need for a West Little Rock Middle School was made contingent upon improving overall performance of the district's middle schools, I went to my President and CEO, Jay Chesshir, and asked for permission to speak/write publicly about what I perceived to be the unresponsiveness of my local school board. His response: "You're a dad first, employee second."

With permission granted, one day later, just after midnight, I made my first blog post, based on exchanges with the two board members who were at that February 8th meeting.

But I was already late to the party.

At the opening of Don Roberts Elementary in the fall of 2010, Kellyann Thornton met Kerry Davis. Deeply involved in support of their new school, after many playground and school hallway discussions, Kellyann and her husband, Richard, invited Kerry and her husband, Devin, to join and them at their home for dinner. There, they committed to advocating for a new secondary school by creating the Middle School Initiative. They began meeting regularly with a small group of other parents, and started the Middle School Initiative Facebook page in January of 2011, which has now grown to 309 likes.

The first public meeting of the Middle School Initiative? February 8, 2011, immediately following the Roberts PTA meeting I referenced earlier. In other words, I was at their first meeting, and didn't even know it.

Bonded by our then third graders' lack of an acceptable public option for middle school, as well as our incredulity over the district's continued ignoring of essentially 3/7 of its population (2/7 after board zones were gerrymandered in 2011), we disparately began our Quixotic tilt at the LRSD windmill.

It was the first year of Don Roberts Elementary, and while we had not been involved in its development (land purchase in 2005, opening in 2010), we were benefiting from others' long, hard struggle to see the first LRSD school built west of I-430 since 1978. As products and longtime champions of public schools, all we wanted for our children was the opportunity to be excellently educated in an environment that truly reflected our community.

As the City grew west, the issue of proximate elementary, and now middle, and now high schools had seemed to cycle through West Little Rock in waves. When parents began one level, they began strongly advocating that the board get busy on the next. When it didn't, and those parents had to make hard choices as to where their kids would continue their education, their advocacy generally ended along with their children's LRSD enrollment.

While my frequent blog posts were likely more cathartic for me than read by others, Kellyann and Kerry's social media efforts were rallying the parental troops. They were writing board members, showing up at board meetings, and presenting passionate, data-driven  reports in three-minute monologues, the only opportunity the public is given to speak at Little Rock School Board meetings.

And yet and still, crickets.

Cut to two years later: My opening my big mouth on public education led to a marriage of my personal and professional passions - an invitation to create and launch what would become Arkansas Learns, this private sector alliance of parents, employers and citizens dedicated to excellent education for all students.

Meanwhile, Kellyann, Kerry and their Middle School Initiative army persisted. Winston Churchill would have been proud, as they "Never, never, never g(a)ve up."

Many parental leaders have emerged and are emerging through both MSI and Arkansas Learns. At the risk of omitting, I'll not attempt to list, but one need only look to frequent posts here and there to see who is effectively involved and engaged.

Finally, last night - April 22, 2013 - these parents' individual and collective efforts were rewarded with the first definitive action toward creation of a middle school in West Little Rock, as the board voted 6-0-1 to purchase property in West Little Rock and in Southwest Little Rock for Middle and High Schools, respectively. Never mind that we long ago abandoned talk of a "Middle School" for "Secondary Schools" (i.e. a high school too), at least it was a late step in the right direction.

Construction and opening are still years away, ensuring that many of our children will never benefit from our actions. But just like we stood on the shoulders of those who pushed for the building of Roberts, other parents will stand on ours to hear their children's voices echoing through the halls of the new middle school.

The lesson in all of this? Parental advocacy in public education must be in it for the long haul. If we're only in this for what benefits will come to our children only, we'll never see the change that all of our children deserve. Meanwhile, we'll play the hand that's dealt us and make the best decisions for our respective families knowing that parents and students whom we'll never know will benefit from our collective actions.

The 6-1 vote which selected Dr. Suggs and the 6-0-1 vote which purchased property for new schools were bold shifts in the direction and leadership of the board. We must, however, remain ever vigilant that it is the beginning of a trend, rather than an aberration of business as usual.

When it comes to looking after the best interests of children, nothing is more powerful than a parent. So, celebrate for a day, then get back to work. Semper Fidelis.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: So Much for Democracy

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Monday, April 15, 2013

Talk About Suppressing the Vote 

By Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Sunday, April 14, 2013)

A BACKBONE salesman would make a killing at this session of the Arkansas legislature. Sure, when it comes to being anti-feral hog or pro-drug tests, or increasing the sentence of anybody who steals some scrap metal, or exposing a state treasurer who has handled the state’s bond business the strange way state Treasurer Martha Shoffner has, our legislators are brave enough. Bad pigs! Bad thieves! Bad state treasurer!

Who isn’t against pigs running wild and copper thieves raiding historic sites? And these days Martha Shoffner must be about as popular as tomato blight. It takes little judgment and even less courage to go after such easy targets.

But when it comes to reforming a corrupt system designed to keep voters from voting, a lot of our lawmakers-entirely too many-show about as much spine as a jelly doughnut. That’s why, just last Tuesday, a simple, sensible, fair and democratic proposal to move school board elections to, well, election day failed in the state House of Representatives.

Why aren’t school boards elected on the same day in November as other public officials? The answer is obvious to anyone who’s watched how The System is rigged: Because that would mean you’d be more likely to vote, Mr. and Mrs. Arkansas.

It’s clear that a lot of those "serving” on school boards-and the teachers’ unions that back them-would rather you didn’t worry your pretty little head about those particular elections. Just leave it to them. They’ll handle everything. Those who know how to work The System will be sure to get their people to the polls (the unions can help with that), and who cares about anybody else?

It’s just so much more convenient for school boards to hold these elections without all the inconvenience of having to deal with the voting public, or at least the part of it that might not agree with them.

So the teachers’ unions and their proxies on school boards around the state choose to hold their critical but poorly attended elections sometime other than November. That way, the unions can get their people to the polls-something they excel at-and dictate public policy.

SENATE BILL 587 would have changed that. It would have moved elections for school boards to election day. Senate Bill 587 had to die.

Which it did in the House.

The yeas numbered 32. The nays 42. Counting fingers and toes, we noted that 32 and 42 don’t add up to 100. (J-School doesn’t exactly specialize in math whizzes.) Which raised another obvious question: What happened to the other 26 members of the state House of Representatives?

They didn’t vote. Those representatives represented nothing. Except maybe a lack of political courage and an abundance of caginess. So the Spineless Twenty-Six stood on the sidelines, voting present or not voting at all. Which was just as good as voting against SB587.

Twenty-six non-votes. Why, that’s more than the total number of voters in some sparsely attended school elections in this state.

Twenty-six. And who were they?

Well, since you asked:

  • Denny Altes of Fort Smith
  • Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock
  • Jonathan Barnett of Siloam Springs
  • Ken Bragg of Sheridan
  • Charlotte Douglas of Alma
  • Deborah Ferguson of West Memphis
  • Bill Gossage of Ozark
  • Kim Hammer of Benton
  • Fonda Hawthorne of Ashdown
  • Prissy Hickerson of Texarkana
  • David Hillman of Almyra
  • Lane Jean of Magnolia
  • Stephen Magie of Conway
  • Stephanie Malone of Fort Smith
  • Stephen Meeks of Greenbrier
  • Mark Perry of Jacksonville
  • Terry Rice of Waldron
  • Mary Slinkard of Gravette
  • Nate Steel of Nashville
  • David Whitaker of Fayetteville
  • Tommy Wren of Melbourne
  • Marshall Wright of Forrest City
  • David Branscum of Marshall
  • Kelley Linck of Yellville
  • Jim Nickels of Sherwood
  • (Davy Carter of Cabot, the speaker of the House, didn’t vote, either. That’s normal practice, though he can vote if he chooses.)

THE OTHER representatives voted either yea or nay. They took a stand. Our respects to them even if they voted wrong. At least they’re on record now, and their constituents can decide for themselves how they feel about the kind of legislator who would discourage voter turnout in school elections. Maybe some who voted against SB587 even had a good reason to, though we can’t imagine what it would be.

To the Democrats listed above, we’d ask: Remember how many in your party opposed requiring voters to show ID at the polls to guard against election fraud? The reason, or just excuse, for their opposition was that such a law would suppress the vote. But in this case, the current system really does suppress the vote-by holding elections on a day when only a small minority vote, or even know there’s an election on. So a well-organized special interest can call the shots. What ever happened to your party’s concern about getting out the vote?

To the Republicans listed above, and there were plenty, what were you thinking? Or were you?

The paper said that some representatives worried about the cost that SB587 would have meant for county governments. Well . . .

  1. Elections do cost money. And changing ballots and ballot machines is an expense. But it’s a small price to pay for democracy.

  2. If you’re going to argue that adopting this proposal to move school elections to the same date as all other elections would cost too much, then vote against it-for the record. Don’t just put your heads down and duck the issue by not voting. As if that would be enough to keep your name out of the paper. That’s not responsibility. It’s dodging responsibility.

To go on the record ourselves, we can understand why legislators would vote for this bill and try to keep the electoral process open, inviting and, yes, democratic. We can also understand why legislators would oppose it-because it might offend a powerful interest that supports them, and they would prefer a system that a special interest can control.

What we don’t understand, or maybe understand all too well, is the spineless types who wouldn’t take a stand on this issue. Deciding issues is their job. It’s why they were sent to the state Capitol in the first place. And it’s a job these 26 state representatives didn’t do.

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Administrators, School Boards Beat Back Parent, Citizen Effort to Democratize School Elections

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2013

SB587, which would have aligned school board elections with the general, failed on the floor of the House today, 32 Yeas, 42 Nays, 3 Present, and 23 Not Voting.

The bill was sponsored by Senator Eddie Joe Williams and run on the House floor by Representative Nate Bell.

The demise of SB587 came after a DO PASS from the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, bipartisan passage by the Senate with 26 Yeas, 8 Nays, and 1 Not Voting, and a DO PASS from House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, accompanied by a DO PASS on HB2186, companion clean-up legislation, endorsed by the counties.

That's the bad news. The good news: 1) while the bill failed for lack of majority, the Nays didn't have a majority either; and 2) a similar bill which would have moved school board elections from September to the primary got no votes in committee during the last session.

So, if we make the same progress between this session and next that we did between last session and this, the issue should find success in 2015.

The bill was effectively opposed by the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) and Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA), whose members, along with the teachers' unions (AEA/NEA), would have the most to lose if public schools were governed by a majority of parents, citizens and property taxpayers instead of incumbent school board members and employees of the respective school districts.

So, the 1,400 souls who determine how to spend at least 2/3 of local property taxes and 46% of all state general revenue will continue to be decided by 100 times (10,000%) fewer voters than in general elections.

Here are the votes (or lack thereof), which will echo over the next two years.

Yeas (32)

Randy Alexander
Duncan Baird
Bob Ballinger
Nate Bell
Mark Biviano
John Burris
Ann Clemmer
Charlie Collins
Andy Davis
Gary Deffenbaugh
Jim Dotson
John Edwards
Jon Eubanks
Joe Farrer
Charlene Fite
Jeremy Gillam
Justin Harris
Debra Hobbs
Karen Hopper
Douglas House
Patti Julian
Allen Kerr
Andrea Lea
Mark Lowery
Andy Mayberry
David Meeks
Josh Miller
Micah Neal
John Payton
Matthew Shepherd
Bruce Westerman
Richard Womack

Nays (42)

Charles Armstrong
John Baine
Scott Baltz
Mary Broadaway
Les Carnine
John Catlett
Harold Copenhaver
Bruce Cozart
Robert Dale
Jody Dickinson
Dan Douglas
David Fielding
Monte Hodges
Mike Holcomb
John Hutchison
Joe Jett
David Kizzia
Sheilla Lampkin
Greg Leding
Homer Lenderman
Fredrick Love
Walls McCrary
Mark McElroy
George McGill
James McLean
Reginald Murdock
Betty Overbey
James Ratliff
Chris Richey
Warwick Sabin
Sue Scott
Frederick Smith
Brent Talley
Tommy Thompson
John Vines
Wes Wagner
John Walker
Jeff Wardlaw
Butch Wilkins
Henry Wilkins
Darrin Williams
James Word

Present (3)

David Branscum
Kelley Linck
Jim Nickels

Not Voting (23)

Denny Altes
Eddie Armstrong
Jonathan Barnett
Ken Bragg
Charlotte Douglas
Deborah Ferguson
Bill Gossage
Kim Hammer
Fonda Hawthorne
Prissy Hickerson
David Hillman
Lane Jean
Stephen Magie
Stephanie Malone
Stephen Meeks
Mark Perry
Terry Rice
Mary Slinkard
Nate Steel
David Whitaker
Tommy Wren
Marshall Wright

Davy Carter (Speaker, Only Votes in Case of Tie)

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Rep. Randy Alexander: Make Arkansas National School Choice Leader

Posted By Arkansas Learns, Monday, April 1, 2013

By Representative Randy Alexander

Arkansas is trailing a nation that’s trailing the world in education. In math and science, the U.S. ranks near the bottom among developed countries. And, here in Arkansas, both fourth- and eighth-graders consistently lag behind the nationwide average in reading. We must change course. And we must look not to the politicians, but rather to the parents of our state to guide us.

Every child deserves an excellent education fitted to their particular needs and interests. State government has proved that it can effectively reach and educate many children through its public schools. Sadly, other kids fall through the cracks. How can we help them?

A proven way to serve the underserved is school choice. The idea is simple—and successful. Let parents direct the money reserved for their kids’ education to a public, charter, magnet or private school of their choice. It’s just like picking a college, or buying a house, or purchasing anything else for that matter. It’s an option and a choice.

That ability gives parents what they need—safe, motivating learning environments for their children—and what students want—an engaging education tailored for them.

Decades ago school choice was just an idea. Today, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have some type of school choice program, including our neighbors Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi; Tennessee is expected to pass a scholarship program this year. In total, 255,000 kids are receiving scholarship assistance to attend schools that work better for them and their parents.

And the evidence shows they are working better. There have been 12 "random-assignment” studies—considered the "gold standard” of social science research—conducted on school choice scholarship programs over time. Of them, 11 found school choice improves student outcomes, while six concluded all students benefit, five found some benefit and others aren’t affected, and only one showed no visible impact. No empirical study has ever found a negative impact from school choice scholarships.

But what about the kids who, for whatever reason, don’t use scholarships and decide to stay in their current public school? The research indicates that they improve too. Of the 23 empirical studies done on school choice’s impact on public schools, 22 found they spur academic gains. One showed no visible impact, and none concluded school choice harms public schools.

School choice is not more tests, paperwork, or regulations saddled on our schools. It’s just an option for parents that gives schools a powerful incentive to serve their children to the very best of their abilities. And when explained to voters, they agree. A 2012 poll by The Tarrance Group found 74 percent of Arkansas voters agree that school choice should be available to Arkansans.

That is why I introduced legislation that, if passed, would bring school choice to Arkansas and make us a national leader.

Although school choice has proved its effectiveness in other states, Arkansas can’t build this student-based system over night. Thus, my proposal starts small, making students in fourth through eighth grade eligible. Moreover, those students must have attended public school the previous semester or be starting school in our state for the first time. Also, students must come from schools with 1,000 or more enrollees.

This pilot phase is similar to what other states have done. Once we see how it impacts our students and schools, we can consider opening it up to more grades.

The goal of this legislation is to provide an excellent education to any student who wants a better opportunity. And the facts show we’re not doing that. But by discussing, pursing, and ultimately enacting school choice, we can begin that important cause today.

For additional information regarding school choice please go to our Facebook page: Arkansas Parents for School Choice; or our website:

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