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Arkansas Panel To Urge Major Reforms For State's Public Schools

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A statewide commission charged with examining standards for Arkansas public schools has tentatively recommended that the state require kindergarten for all children, establish a "promotional gates" program, raise high-school graduation requirements, and extend the school year.

The 15-member panel, created this year by the state legislature, was to make its preliminary recommendations public at a news conference yesterday. Its final recommendations will go to the state board of education in March.

Special Session

Gov. Bill Clinton is expected to call a special session of the legislature this fall--possibly at the beginning of October--to consider both the proposed new standards and a new school-funding formula to comply with a state supreme court decision finding the present school-finance system unconstitutional. Governor Clinton has said repeatedly that he would not consider a special session to change the finance formula until the standards commission had presented its recommendations.

Although the commission, chaired by the Governor's wife, Hillary Clinton, did not estimate the cost of the proposed reforms, sources in Little Rock said they believed the Governor and legislative leaders would seek about $185 million in new funds for education. About $30 million to $35 million would go to public colleges and universities, the sources said, with the remainder going to extra state aid for poor school districts and first-year implementation of the proposed new standards.

As described by sources familiar with the document, the commission's preliminary report recommends that the standards be phased in over the next four years. Apparently sharing the commonly held view that many of the state's educational deficiencies stem from the large number of small, inefficient school districts, the commissioners recommended strong sanctions against districts that do not comply with the standards; those not meeting the new requirements by July 1, 1987, would be subject to consolidation or dissolution. The report, observers said, urges reforms in virtually every instructional area, including:

Kindergarten and elementary schools. All students would be required to complete kindergarten before being admitted to the 1st grade. The pupil-teacher ratio in kindergarten would not exceed 20-to-1. In grades 1 to 3, the pupil-teacher ratio would be set immediately at 25-to-1, with the goal of a 23-to-1 ratio by 1990. In grades 4 through 6, the ratio would be set at 28-to-1 immediately and 25-to-1 by 1990.

Sources said the decreased class sizes reflected the commission's recognition of the extra burdens posed on regular teachers by the mainstreaming of handicapped children and its desire to stress the basic skills in the early grades. The commission also urged that counseling services be upgraded in elementary schools and that the state de-velop a standard curriculum guide for elementary schools.

Competency testing. The panel recommended that basic-skills tests be administered to children in grades 3, 6, and 8. Eighth graders failing the test would automatically be held back; they would have a chance to attend summer school and two more opportunities to pass the test in order to start 9th grade with their classmates.

Teachers would have the discretion to promote or retain 3rd and 6th graders who do not pass the tests, but schools would be required to design individualized education programs for all students not passing the examinations. Special-education students would be exempt from these provisions.

If more than 15 percent of the eligible children in a school failed the tests, the district would be required to submit an improvement plan to the state. If, after two years, the passage rate showed no sign of improvement, the school district would be subject to dissolution.

Graduation standards. The commission recommended that the number of Carnegie units required for graduation be raised from 16 to 20, including four years of English; three each of mathematics, science, and social studies; and one-half year each of fine arts, physical education, and computer science.

Each district would be required to offer at least 38 specified courses at the high-school level; those failing to comply would be subject to dissolution.

Attendance policy and the school year. State law now requires that Arkansas children attend school from age 7 to age 15; the panel recommends that the mandatory attendance age be from 6 to 16.

The group also urged that the school year be extended from the 175 days now required by law to 180; that at least five and one half hours of each school day be devoted to instruction; and that each district be required to develop a discipline code and a policy on homework.

Teachers. According to the latest figures available from the National Education Association, Arkansas teachers are now the lowest paid in the nation, with an average salary of about $15,700. The commission recommended that each district "establish the goal" of bringing its teachers' salaries in line with the average in surrounding states--about $18,500.

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