Category Archives: Education

School work to be finished early

Bruce Cozart is chairman of the House Education Committee.
Bruce Cozart is chairman of the House Education Committee.
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The Arkansas Legislature goes into session in January, but some of the most important decisions will be completed this month, without much debate.

That’s because, by Nov. 1, the House and Senate Education Committees will complete the state’s adequacy report, the biennial (once every two years) document that governs how and how much (always more) the state spends on K-12 public education.

The adequacy report was created in the wake of the Lake View case, a lawsuit brought on by a poor, rural school district in the Delta. A series of court decisions said the state wasn’t spending enough on education and wasn’t spending it in the right places – including on students like those in Lake View. In response, Arkansas consolidated schools (Lake View ended up being one) and poured money into education at a time when other states were cutting spending.

Fear of returning to court has governed Arkansas policymakers ever since. No matter what the economic or budgetary situation has been, schools are funded first, and they always get a raise.

There was a time when the money spigot was wide open, but now it’s closed to a small stream. Basically, schools get a cost of living adjustment every year now. The chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, figured out a raise of 1.15 percent this past weekend and challenged members to create their own figures.

That’s probably about what will end up happening. The committees will finish their work and present the adequacy report to Gov. Asa Hutchinson by Nov. 1. His administration will tweak it, it will be presented to the Legislature, and the Legislature will pass it without much debate. Any dissenting legislators will be cut off by two words: Lake View.

That’s roughly 41.5 percent of your general revenue budget right there – general revenues being the state spending over which legislators have the most control. The general revenue budget this past year was $5.3 billion, and of that, $2.2 billion went to the public school fund.

There will be arguments over smaller parts of the education budget, including funding for school transportation. Current funding is based on the number of students school districts have, not the number of route miles their buses travel, so some compact districts pocket extra money that they use for other purposes, while far-flung districts lose money driving all over the county. There’s been talk for years about basing funding on route miles, which seems obvious, but that would mean some districts would win and some would lose. When that happens, expect a fight to occur.

Education advocates will say a 1 percent raise isn’t enough, but they’d better be glad they’re getting it. The state does have other priorities – colleges and universities, human services, highways, prisons – that must fight for what’s left after schools, and advocates would say it hasn’t been enough.

A case can be made that the Lake View case set the stage for Arkansas being one of the few Republican-leaning states to expand Medicaid through Obamacare to create the controversial private option, which purchases private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. The state was primed to take the money partly because it can’t cut funding for schools.

But starting next year, the private option, which has been funded almost entirely using federal dollars, will start to nibble at the state budget. The state will be responsible for 5 percent of the cost in 2017 and 10 percent by 2020. Meanwhile, the number of Arkansans receiving benefits has soared past the expected 250,000 and continues to rise.

That’s kind of scary. Schools will still get a raise, but everyone’s looking at rising health care costs. Meanwhile, highway advocates are begging for money that’s just not available. The state is trying to figure out how to slow the growth of prison costs without making crime worse. And amidst all that, the governor says he wants to cut taxes again.

How do you make the numbers work? The state’s economy must continue to grow, which it is doing to the tune of a 3.9% unemployment rate. And the state will continue to take federal dollars wherever it can, including for highways and health care.

There will be a big debate about that – taking money for health care. Legislators will have time because 41.5 percent of the budget will already be settled. Nothing starts an argument like the word “Obamacare.” Nothing shuts it down like the words “Lake View.”

Whew, that’s a lot of debt for football seats

football-on-tee-150-dpiBy Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The next time you’re tempted to base your beliefs purely on political stereotypes, keep in mind that it was a former Democratic U.S. senator who stood, basically alone at first, against a huge government spending program financed by public debt.

That would be David Pryor, University of Arkansas trustee and leader of the opposition against a $120 million bond issue to help pay for adding 3,000 premium seats to Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Pryor’s was one of two votes last Thursday – the other being Cliff Gibson’s – against the bond issue. The debt, which rises to $186 million counting interest and fees, will also pay for rounding out the stadium, adding a video board, updating the Broyles Athletic Center, and other improvements. The bond issue will be repaid over 20 years through ticket revenues and is not expected to affect students, who, unlike at the state’s other four-year universities, are not charged a fee for athletics.

The business case for the expansion isn’t unreasonable. The University of Arkansas Athletic Department is well managed and one of a relatively small number across the country that pays for itself. Athletic Director Jeff Long said the department has already secured millions of dollars in commitments for those premium seats. To be competitive in major college football, a program must invest resources into taking care of its wealthy fans. They’re the kind who donate extra money.

Still, I’m with Pryor on this one, for three reasons.

– It’s public debt. Neither taxpayers nor students are supposedly on the hook, but if the financial arrangement isn’t working, somebody must pay that money back. While the state’s Revenue Stabilization Act supposedly forces a balanced budget each year, the truth is that the state of Arkansas has billions of dollars in debt, and the University of Arkansas is a state institution.

The other thing about debt is that it becomes your master. Future decisions will be made with this bond issue in mind. The team must keep winning to fill the stadium to pay for the bond issue, so Coach Bret Bielema had better keep engineering these late game heroics. The need to raise revenue for the bond issue will be one more reason for the Razorbacks to stop playing games in Little Rock after 2018 when the current contract ends.

– It’s regressive government financing. The bond issue is adding expensive football seats – suites, semi-private loge boxes, club seats – that are being financed by the fans who buy regular seats. Those regular seats already are priced at just about the limit for a middle class fan – for nonconference games, $35 for upper level seats and $55 for lower level ones, with conference games priced higher. Taking your family to a game already sets you back $250, and the bond issue payments will raise the cost.

– It sends the wrong message and allocates resources in the wrong direction. Pryor called this the largest financial commitment the state has ever made for higher education, and it’s for a football stadium. In January, while the Board of Trustees was advancing the stadium project, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences begged for $97 million to renovate its aging facilities. So far, that money has not been found. What should be the higher priority: the football stadium, or the hospital? The entity that teaches college students to be football players, or the entity that teaches medical students to be doctors?

The Razorbacks are a tie that binds, and I’m glad they beat TCU Saturday. But sometimes this state forgets that the University of Arkansas is a school, not a football team. The vote by the board of trustees is not a scandal, because the money is probably going to be there and the Athletic Department has a history of good financial stewardship. Still, $120 million – actually, $186 million? Woo, pig sooie, but whew, that’s a lot of debt for football seats.

Teaching students to look behind the screens

Ella Beth Wengel, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's granddaughter, right, introduces Mattie Brawner to coding at an event at the Clinton Library.
Ella Beth Wengel, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s granddaughter, introduces Mattie Brawner to coding at an event at the Clinton Library.
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson stood before the assembled students at the Benton High School auditorium and asked for a show of hands: How many were interested in a career in computer coding? What he described as a “smattering” raised their hands.

So then the 65-year-old governor proceeded to tell the teenagers why computers are important. Farmers use software to determine how much to water their crops, he said. Manufacturing is now done by robots controlled by computers. When he was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, computers predicted potential terrorist attacks at ports so millions of containers didn’t have to be searched one at a time. He also showed the students a code.org video featuring a bunch of old guys, including Bill Gates, 60, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 32, talking about coding. When he asked for another show of hands at the end of his presentation, more hands were raised.

Benton High was the first stop among several where the governor is encouraging students to take the computer science classes he and legislators now require schools to offer. He said afterwards that he is trying to help students understand “the connection between their technology that they live by, and how that technology comes about.”

Arkansas is the first state to teach computer science in every public high school, leading “Wired” magazine to publish an online article headlined, “So, Arkansas is leading the learn to code movement.” The idea came when Hutchinson was running for governor in 2014 and his 11-year-old granddaughter built a smartphone application for his campaign. Hutchinson pledged to require every high school in Arkansas to teach computer science and then signed it into law in 2015 after he was elected. Students taking the course receive a core math or science credit.

During the past school year, about 4,000 students took computer coding classes, many of them through the state’s online Virtual Academy because so few teachers were trained in coding. Meanwhile, the state spent $5 million partly to train teachers to give in-person instruction. At Benton High, 28 students are taking the class this year under teacher Lauren Roseberry, compared to the 15 who took the course last year online.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is on pace to be one of three states where every public school is connected to high-speed internet by July 2017.

At one time, Arkansas’ economic development strategy might best be described as “Come to the home of everyday low wages.” The state has attracted manufacturers because it doesn’t have much of a union presence. In the past, empty spec buildings were built so companies would have a place to land. And, of course, like all states Arkansas still generously pays companies to locate here through taxpayer-financed subsidies and tax credits.

Globalization and automation make all of that much less effective. At first, there was always someone overseas willing to work cheaper. Now, the factories are starting to come back to America, but not so many of the jobs; the people have been replaced by robots.

A coding job, meanwhile, requires only a computer, a high-speed internet connection (still a problem in some places in Arkansas), and a place to sit down – be that in an office, a coffee shop or a spare bedroom. State and local governments don’t have to build roads or rail spurs or worry about permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. Many startups get off the ground without requiring taxpayer-financed incentives.

Software developers earned a median wage of $100,690 in May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to code.org, there are currently 526,000 computing jobs open – 1,701 in Arkansas.

That’s where the jobs are – or a lot of them, anyway – not the 1950s factory work that’s never coming back no matter which presidential candidate Americans elect to re-negotiate those “unfair trade deals.”

Arkansas is a cheap place to live, and it has some nice scenery. The jobs will come here or, better yet, be created here, as long as the talent is available. How to create that talent? Encourage students to stop merely looking at their screens, and start exploring what’s behind them.

Letting boys be boys in school

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Every year before students have taken their standardized tests, former principal Terri McCann, now a district administrator, has walked into the third grade all-girls’ classroom at West Memphis Bragg Elementary, told students what to expect, and reminded them to sharpen their pencils. It’s always been very calm and encouraging. Then she’s walked to the all-boys’ classroom, closed the door behind her, and shouted, like a football coach, “Are you going to let those girls beat you again?!”

“No!” they’d yell like they were ready to run out of a locker room and run over an Ole Miss Rebel.

Those motivational techniques are just one of many ways third grade boys and girls are taught differently at Bragg Elementary, and it all started when McCann and other school leaders looked at test results and realized that girls were outscoring boys just about everywhere in every grade.

Those problems mirror what’s happening throughout the rest of society. Academically, girls are outperforming boys and have been for a long time and in many countries, according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, females made up 57 percent of all college students in the fall of 2015.

Of course, the educators at Bragg Elementary aren’t responsible for the performance of America’s youth. They’re responsible for their kids. So they asked themselves a hard question: At Bragg Elementary, how are we failing boys, and how can we help all students?

They decided to offer parents the choice of a boys’, girls’ or mixed-gender classroom. They trained with specialists who taught them about different learning styles. And then they implemented those ideas.

The differences in the boys’ and girls’ classrooms start with how they are arranged. In the girls’ classroom, desks face each other in neat, small clusters. In the boys’ classroom, desks are arranged shoulder-to-shoulder. Carpet is glued beneath the boys’ desks so they can rub their hands back and forth and release energy while they are listening.

Movement, in fact, is one of the keys to success in the boys’ room. While the girls typically work well at their desks, the boys are allowed to do workbook problems standing and pressing their paper against a wall, or they go outside and toss a ball while doing math problems. Teachers walk back and forth and expressively use their hands to keep students’ attention, and they skip from topic to topic.

Other communication and teaching styles differ. Boys are given simple instructions and then dive into the lessons, while girls, who are better hearers from birth, are given a much more thorough explanation. The boys’ room has a lot more competition, and because boys learn better under stress, they have many timed activities. Girls, on the other hand, compete less and are given more time. In math, boys use fewer math manipulatives, which become distractions and, inevitably, projectiles. The girls tend to learn better using those hands-on, concrete objects.

The results? In 2005 four years before the change, only 55 percent of third grade students were proficient in literacy and 78 percent in math. In 2014, it was 87 percent and 96 percent. The biggest recent gain has been in boys’ literacy – from 53 percent proficient in 2009, the first year of the change, to 87 percent in 2014.

True, test scores generally have increased throughout Arkansas. But McCann and her fellow educators are confident their methods have made a difference and have seen other successes, such as improved discipline. Moreover, students with special needs are mainstreamed into these classrooms rather than housed in special ed. Educators and parents alike have noticed that the students, particularly the boys in the all-boys’ classroom, rally around those classmates and make them feel part of the team.

Interestingly, Bragg Elementary didn’t see the same success with mixed classrooms in the sixth grade, so only the third grade offers gender-based classrooms. Still, the lessons learned have been incorporated in all grades.

To some, the model probably sounds politically incorrect, especially when society is debating the notion of gender these days.

But left and right ought to be able to agree that classrooms should fit the student rather than the other way around. This is how Bragg Elementary is doing it: by taking into account gender learning styles, giving parents a choice and, when appropriate, letting boys be boys.

Related: How two sisters and a cup of coffee changed a school