GINNY BLANKENSHIP: Urges study of school law waivers.

The state Board of Education heard but didn’t comment today on a public call for a study of the granting of waivers from school standards, now widely available to all public schools.

The call came in a public comment session from Ginny Blankenship, education policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. It followed the discussion by the Board Thursday of controversial proposals to waive the teacher fair dismissal law in the Pine Bluff and Little Rock school districts and to continue to waive the requirement for licensed teachers in the Pine Bluff district.

Blankenship said she was moved to recommend a task force to study the issue by a broader concern than the issues that arose this week. She noted how much time the Board has begun to devote to waivers for charter schools and regular school districts.

The Board has broad power to waive standards in districts judged in academic distress and taken over by the state (Little Rock and Pine Bluff). But the law also now allows any school district to ask for waivers granted any charter school with students in that district. As a practical matter, this means every school district in the state can claim all of the many waivers received by the Arkansas Virtual Academy, an online operation with students statewide.

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“Almost every district in the state may now apply for a waiver on almost everything not expressly forbidden by federal law,” Blankenship said. She added, “It has become increasingly unclear what the rationale is for decision-making.”

Blankenship said the state needs to assess what is working, what is not working and how decisions are made on which waivers to grant. Perhaps laws should be repealed if they have no practical value.

But, she said, “It’s unclear what standards should be non-negotiable.” She said if the Board waives standards that a body of research has shown have a positive impact on students, “Why have standards at all?”

She said most parents have little understanding of the waiver process. She said she feared the waiver movement was a move away from the state’s state goal of excellence in education.

She urged the appointment of a committee to study the good and bad and the state’s guiding principles. She said such a group should include educators, parents, students, legislators and others.

The Board had little comment on the proposal, though Board member Susan Chambers said a broad-based engagement on school issues was the focus of an earlier board discussion.

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Blogger Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay endeavored to provide some deeper background on the thousands of waivers in place in the state in this blog post last summer.