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A proposed amendment aims to provide universal Pre-K, hold private schools to equal standards

[Editor's note: the ballot question committee For AR Kids posted on social media at 1:41 on January 18 that they have submitted their second attempt at this ballot measure. Any changes to the language are not reflected in the conversation below.]

A proposed constitutional amendment has been rejected that aims to change elements of the governor’s major education law. The Educational Rights Amendment of 2024 proposes that all schools that receive local or state funding will be required to meet “identical State academic standards and identical State standards of accreditation.” Bill Kopsky serves as the director of the Arkansas Public Policy, and he says leading up to the proposed ballot measure, they conducted research on a group of Arkansans.

Bill Kopsky: The polling shows this is completely a nonpartisan issue, which is the way education always has been until the past few years. It's becoming more and more hyper partisan, sadly because of the legislature, but in the public we have overwhelming support across all partisan identities. This is not a partisan issue in any way, shape, or form.

Matthew Moore: What sort of experience do you have personally with the ballot initiative process?

BK: I've worked at the Panel for quite a few years and we've worked on a number of ballot measures over the years, and so we've worked on a whole range of issues around several minimum wage efforts. We've raised the minimum wage in Arkansas through ballot measures several times. Ethics and campaign finance reform. We've opposed a few ballot measures over the years. Most recently, last cycle, there was a measure that the legislature proposed that would have raised the threshold to 60% of the vote, which allowed just a 40% minority to block passage of a ballot measure. We oppose that and defeated it was 60% of the vote, which felt particularly gratifying.

MM: As someone who has done this before you've kind of been through this process before. What kind of get into this and a little bit but just kind of on its surface. What is this process been like for you going through with this ballot measure and this specific Attorney General compared to previous experiences? 

BK: It depends. We have a really strong committee of lawyers and volunteers and educators that have been helping us build the campaign and build the measure. So that part's been really gratifying. We have a really amazing team. And so that part's been fantastic.

You know, the Attorney General's Office has traditionally played this role, actually. So this is not terribly new. In the past the Attorney General's Office, have a little bit more of … what's the right word … they're more helpful in really trying to help citizen groups. I mean, I think the whole reason why they were put into the middle of the process to begin with was to help citizens prepare a good law. And in the past, the Attorney General's office staff would actually call people that were working on ballot measures, talk to them about what their real goals were and help them find the best language the right way to accomplish their goals, whether they agree with it or not. They were there just to basically make good public policy.

And this attorney general seems to be taking a little bit different approach towards that and a little bit more adversarial. But at the end of the day, as long as they're operating in good faith, you know, it's still good work out. We expect it to be rejected on the first time. We're already planning to submit a new version in the coming days and we'll see how the process goes.

MM: Can you lay out the main tenants of the Educational Rights Amendment? 

BK: There's three core components. The first is putting a constitutional right to four of the most effective education reforms, and so one would be universal access for all three and four-year-olds to early childhood education. Universal access to quality after school in summary, programming, universal access to all these special education and then universal access to support services for kids who are in poverty. Poverty is the biggest negative impact on learning that we have. And there's all kinds of amazing data that shows that programs that address poverty really help low-income children learn a lot better. So that's the first component of this four, kind of we call them the four most evidence-based reforms that any state or school district could do to improve student outcomes.

And then the other two components are: one solidifies the definition of education adequacy in the Constitution. It’s basically just taking the exact definition that the Supreme Arkansas Supreme Court used in the 2002 Lakeview ruling and putting that definition in the Constitution. It creates a floor on educational quality that the legislature would never be able to go beneath in.

And then the third component would require any school that receives public funding to follow the same set of educational standards.

MM: So it seems to me that the element of the amendment that has certainly gotten the most attention and seems to be the one that has been pushed back against the most by Attorney General Tim Griffin is around the state assessments ought to be the same for public and for private schools. The first proposal the first thing that he rejected he said, “many parochial schools provide religious instruction as part of their academic curriculum, but if enacted, your proposal would prevent parochial schools from offering that instruction.” What is your reaction when you hear that? 

BK: That's definitely incorrect. We will not be telling parochial schools they can offer religious instruction. What we would be saying is that they wouldn't be entitled to state funding to offer parochial instruction. Their First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of religion is certainly still intact. They just wouldn't be entitled to use state tax dollars. Unless they're willing to meet state educational standards.

MM: We've seen elements of this in higher education, is that not right? When we think of how public schools and private schools can get state funding and federal funding that there are certain elements that they have to meet in order to qualify for those sorts of fundings?

BK: I mean, it's the law now I mean, to get state or federal funding for almost any program, there are certain strings that come attached to it. And so what we're saying is that we'd like to create a level playing field between traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools that take advantage of school vouchers. So there's an equal playing field on quality standards, transparency, accountability, all those sorts of things. And right now, we really have an unequal playing field where public schools are held to a much higher standard than what charter schools or private schools aren't held to.

MM: Have you heard from whether it's parents who, whose students attend private schools or performed private school administrators that that they would be opposed to this sort of amendment and this sort of, you know, equal assessment?

BK: We haven't actually heard from anyone. We've only had the campaign out for a little over a month now. And there's a long way to go before the election in November. But, you know, at our polling shows, nearly 80% of Arkansans support the idea that any school receiving public funding should have to meet the same standards. And so I think it kind of makes sense that public money comes along with it public accountability, public transparency, and again, an equal playing field. I think it's something we can all support.

MM: You spoke out in opposition to the LEARNS Cct when it was being considered in the regular session of 2023. Do you feel that this amendment would help to alleviate some of the concerns that you had and still have about the law? 

BK: It would in a couple of important ways. The first is that one of the frustrating things about voucher schemes like LEARNS has in it and charter schools is that there's not very much evidence that they actually improve education. Actually, there's evidence that they undermine educational quality, particularly for middle and low income kids. But there's unbelievable and overwhelming evidence and consensus among education researchers of the power of reforms like pre-K, after school and summer wraparound services for kids in poverty, quality, high quality special ed, improving teacher quality, but those programs have not been funded by the Arkansas legislature as they've been distracted by, frankly, ineffective strategies of school privatization.

And so we've been frustrated that for example: early childhood education in Arkansas hasn't had a funding increase in 15 years. The after school and summer program Arkansas created the framework for an after school and summer program in the legislature in 2009. Then never funded the single dime of it and so Arkansas puts no state dollars in after-school and summer programs for the parents of special education and special needs. Kids know that because they know that a lot of their children are not being served well. The schools know it because they're trying and many of them the schools and the educators are trying their best but they're just not getting the resources that they need.

The state in 2015 had a taskforce on special education, and it recommended hundreds of millions of dollars of investment for special education including a $100 million need for just catastrophic care for our highest needs students. The legislature has not invested any new money since that report came out in 2015 into the special education so we have this gaping need and special education that our amendment would address.

And so those things are the parts of the amendment we feel the best about because it is basically putting would be putting state dollars in those programs that we know proven to be the most effective and helping students learn.

MM: When you talk about the underfunding of summer programming, pre-K, special education, and you see the highlights of two consecutive years of a billion plus dollar surplus. What does that make you think about?

It’s really misplaced priorities. Arkansas over the past decade has spent I think it's around or has passed nearly $1.5 billion in tax cuts almost exclusively going to the highest income earners. And that's not how we improve the economy or the quality of life for all Arkansans.

You know, education is one of those things, it's the closest to a silver bullet we have for improving quality of life. And we'd be much better off making those investments in early childhood education. Investments in pre-K pay themselves back 8:1 or 9:1. Investments in after school and summer programs, the same.

Investments in special education even save money because the money we spent early on special education means that money we don't have to spend later on remediation or on health care or on job support for people with special needs. It makes them more productive, effective citizens in the state, which is good for everybody. But it also makes them stronger, healthier people which is also good. So, it's sort of a win-win to invest in those things. When we see the state squandering surpluses on tax cuts that only benefit a small slice of the of the most privileged in our state, it doesn't, it doesn't support the values that we should have the state of making sure everybody has a quality education.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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