Lawmakers Review, Debate Academic Distress Status For Schools

Jan 11, 2016

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Arkansas Department of Education Attorney Kendra Clay answered lawmakers' questions Monday.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / KUAR

Causes and possible solutions for academic distress in Arkansas’s public schools sharply divided lawmakers at an education caucus at the Capitol Monday. 

Democratic Representative John Walker said he believes the state's "distress" category is a pretense to re-segregate majority black schools.

“Every one of them has huge fiscal issues, and one way you avoid addressing the fiscal issues is by taking the school over, " he said.

"You don't fix up the building, you don't have to deal with facilities, you don't have to deal with resources, and then you just say, 'well, these kids are not learning,'" he said. 

Republican Rep. Mark Lowery disagreed with Representative Walker’s analysis that poor facilities in majority black districts are tied to academic distress, and said he wants to know more data behind the causes.

“How do we make sure the changes we're making," he asked, "are changes that have been identifies because they are pure causal links and not just correlational anomalies?" 

Individual schools or school districts in academic or fiscal distress may be taken over by the state’s Department of Education. 49.5 percent of students must test below adequacy levels in math and English for three years for a school to be categorized in distress. 

Education Commissioner Johnny Key said he would like to see more students within distressed schools given individual attention. 

"How can we get down to that individual student, and what supports can we as a state and districts give to teachers to help drive that improvement for that one student?" he asked. 

The department is required to develop a learning plan for each student scoring below adequate levels. 

The education caucus plans next to address whether to limit the uses of funding for students in poverty, in advance of the spring fiscal session.