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Arkansas Department of Education plans to cut funding to education service cooperatives

A map laying out the 15 different education service cooperatives across Arkansas.
Dawson Education Service Cooperative
A map laying out the 15 different education service cooperatives across Arkansas.

A proposal by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ administration would cut funding for fourteen of the state’s fifteen education service cooperatives by more than $4 million for the 2025 fiscal year. Curtis Varnell is the science regional specialist for Guy Fenter Education Service Co-operative based in Branch. He said in his 16 years working for the co-op there has never been a concern for adequate state funding.

“In fact, we were told just recently — and our center director assured us — that everything was good,” Varnell said. “As of two or three weeks ago, we were told we were doing a really good job, our jobs were secure, and they were talking about raises.”

The issue is not a lack of money. Varnell said that according to Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva, it involves “student outcomes.”

Secretary Oliva echoed this sentiment in a March 7th legislative committee meeting.

“Our educational co-ops have been receiving funding from the state,” Oliva said. “I want to be perfectly clear, whether it’s co-ops or school districts or anybody in the state that thinks that we’re just going to do business as usual and fund positions because that’s what we’ve always funded and we don’t have a return on that investment, they need to know we’re going to have a deeper conversation. That is not an entitlement appropriation.”

For those of us — present company included — who are not deeply enmeshed in Arkansas’ education program, let’s explain what these fifteen co-ops do. Varnell said they started in the late 1970s as a way to cost share some materials and resources like psychologists across districts.

“Today, probably 75% of our time is spent in professional development time for teachers,” Varnell said. “We do that in two manners; we go directly out into the schools and work with the teachers by modeling lessons and assisting in matching their curriculum with state standards. The other part is providing professional development in the summer. All teachers are required anywhere from 36-60 hours of professional development and it’s required as part of their contract as a teacher.”

These 15 co-ops are spread out across the state of Arkansas, working primarily in rural school districts. Data from the Arkansas Department of Education shows that the Guy Fenter co-op works with 23 school districts and 98 different schools. Only the Northwest Arkansas co-op and the Arch Ford co-op based in Plumerville work with more schools. These co-ops receive funding from the Arkansas Department of Education to provide these services to school districts. Varnell said as a specialist, he works alongside teachers, but he also spends a lot of time with students.

“Last week I was doing some presentation type things in auditorium settings,” Varnell said. “I saw a little more than 1,200 students and 27 teachers. Most weeks I will go directly in the classroom and a teacher will tell me what their subject matter is that they're working on and then I did model lessons and sometimes observed them as they present lessons. But, I'm in classrooms virtually every day. Over 80% of my time spent directly with teachers in the classroom in the districts.”

Ozarks at Large reached out to the Department of Education and requested an interview with Secretary Oliva. The departments communications director Kimberly Mundell did not grant that request but said in an email that the secretary explained that there must be a “return on investment” for the education cooperatives, and the department is reevaluating how the funds are distributed and the support the co-ops are providing to districts. In a budget meeting with the state legislature, Secretary Oliva made similar points.

“We have let these co-ops now don't just guarantee and expect you're going to get this funding,” Oliva said. “We're going to reevaluate how these districts are being supported, because the reality is literacy and numeracy data hasn't been improving in the last decade and we've been just giving dollars out the window. So, we officially let them know w e may not be giving you these dollars the way you’ve always received them. We're going to reevaluate and make sure we're having a great impact on what's best for students. And that's what we're always going to maintain our focus on.”

Varnell said there has been no conversation at all about how the co-ops are not getting a “return on investment” or meeting the expectations of the department of education.

“We have a grant evaluation each year,” Varnell said. “It's about four pages long and each [specialist] fills it out. It tells us our expectations. I’ve had one every year, and every year — as far as I know — every specialist in the state has to have “meet expectations” or “exceed expectations” or their grants are not renewed. So, we were renewed a year ago in July, and all expectations were met.”

In 2011, Representative Johnnie Roebuck, a Democrat from Arkadelphia and the House Majority Leader, sponsored a bill that would establish performance ratings for education service cooperatives. The language in the bill lays out that the head of the Education department would conduct evaluations at least once within each five-year period. The evaluation shall include user satisfaction, service adequacy, extent of local financial support, staff qualifications, and performance and administration effectiveness. The evaluation is on a 5-level scale: level 1 is in need of immediate improvement, level 2 is “on alert,” level 3 is meeting standards, level 4 is exceeding standards, and level 5 is excellence.

Oliva said in that March 7th meeting that he is a big believer in educational co-ops. He was a superintendent at a rural district, and he acknowledges those small rural districts need the intuitional support of co-ops to help give them the services needed to keep up with the standards required of schools.

“But the co-ops need to be effective in the support that they're providing districts,” Oliva said. “ I think as we move forward and look at opportunities, how do we help support co-ops, but then also hold them accountable for student performance as well.”

Varnell said there have been no evaluations given to students since the implantation of the LEARNS Act.

“Student testing begins in April,” Varnell said. “So, there’s no outcomes for this year. To me, it looks like it’s just an excuse. If the student outcomes are not correct, then [the Arkansas Department of Education’s] evaluation of us in the past is incorrect. Then it must be their programs, which would come from ADE.”

Secretary Oliva goes on in his meeting with the legislature to talk about the funding being provided to co-ops.

“What’s happening is we’re just giving money to co-ops,” Oliva said, “and those dollars are getting watered down and not being used intended the way they were designed to be used.”

When Varnell heard that statement, he said “Well, [Secretary Oliva] has been here a year, so he doesn’t know what’s going on.” In the 16 years Varnell has worked for the co-op, a representative from the Arkansas Department of Education has only visited 3 times to see his co-ops work.

“In that period of time,” Varnell said, “zero from the state Department of Education has ever gone to a classroom with me. Ever. So how much do you think they know?”

Varnell said he was sent to the Marvell-Elaine school district last school year for a week by the Department of Education and Secretary Oliva to help the school.

“[Secretary Oliva] came in one day while I was there,” Varnell said, “he and the governor. They gave their speech out in the auditorium, got in their cars, and left. The next week he came in telling us how great we had. He made the statement, ‘I looked into the eyes of those students and I could see what a change that you had made.’ And I told my neighbor, ‘The man must be Superman, because he saw through a brick wall.’ He was only in the auditorium. He'd never ever come into the classroom while I was there and never saw a student. So that might tell you how much trust and faith I have in his leadership.”

More than 50 employees will be impacted by the reallocation of this funding. The department of education has told co-ops they will only receive funding for 1 math specialist, 1 science specialist, and 1 dyslexia/literacy specialist. For Guy Fenter, that means 1 literacy specialist to cover 98 different schools across 23 different school districts.

One of the commitments of the LEARNS ACT is to recruit, train, and onboard 120 literacy specialists across the state. So where will the remaining 105 specialists come from? Varnell said many specialists are contracted by the state of Arkansas to do this now, and some of his soon-to-be-former colleagues are looking for jobs with these companies.

“They know that the consultants being brought in here are making a lot more money,” Varnell said. “In fact, one of them told me that last week she had been offered a job at $500 a day. That's a lot more than we're making, so she will do consulting, and it's going to be a lot more cost.”

One of those companies is Solution Tree, who has three contracts with the state of Arkansas at a value of 149.9 million dollars, according to the state’s transparency website.

“Solution Tree does a good job with training teachers to work together with vertical and horizontal alignments,” Varnell said. “But it is a great expense. Also, they're not there daily like these teachers are and yes I'm concerned that we're going to be out a lot more money.”

When teachers are required to have a certain number of professional development hours each year, school districts essentially have three choices: have people on staff who can provide that professional development, work with the educational cooperatives for those resources, or hire an outside consultant to do that for you. Varnell said if the funding for cooperatives is reallocated to the point that they cannot have someone on staff to do that work for rural districts, that really only leaves them with the choice of hiring an outside consultant.

“You’re going to be hiring out of state people that’s going to cost the schools more,” Varnell said. “After this year when [schools] have to fund that $50,000 minimum salary, a lot of smaller schools don't have that kind of money. And I think it's an effort eventually to close down a lot of smaller schools. I don't see — unless there's more money appropriated — how some of those small schools can survive.”

When asked what he would tell Secretary Oliva if he had an opportunity to discuss the successes that he’s seeing in the classroom or the improvements that are happening with teacher development, he welcomed the opportunity.

“Why don’t you come out?” Varnell asked of Secretary Oliva. “Why don’t you go with me to a classroom? Why don’t you go and talk to some of my teachers? Why haven’t you in the past? Where have you made this evaluation? Have you done it from your desk? Have you done it by talking to any person that’s involved? Or have you just made this decision on your own based on your assumptions? Because it is definitely on your assumptions and not anything else.”

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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