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Arkansas Business Leaders Issue Reform Plan

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A group of influential Arkansas businessmen has set an ambitious education-reform agenda for the state that includes comprehensive early-childhood programs, increased teacher pay, and the consolidation of failing school systems.

The Arkansas Business Council, which includes 19 chief executive officers from some of the state's largest businesses, detailed its proposals this month in a report that drew support from Gov. Bill Clinton and Ruth Steele, director of the state education department.

The council, which was formed last year, said it adopted education as its primary focus because it sees it as the key to improving business opportunities in the state.

"One of our primary motivating factors is that we plan to continue doing business in Arkansas, and our businesses will directly benefit from a better educated workforce," the council stated in its report, entitled "In Pursuit of Excellence."

Council members indicated that they would be willing to support higher taxes to help pay for the reforms, but only after strategies for implementing them are in place.

"We regard this as a social compact: Taxes for reform," the report said.

Earlier Start, Higher Pay

To help young children "get a good start in life," the council recommended better coordination of existing programs and the creation of a "comprehensive state program for preschool education of all at-risk 4-year-olds."

Noting that many 5-year-olds who are not enrolled in kindergarten come from families "without educational resources adequate to prepare their children for school," the council also proposed mandatory full-day kindergarten attendance. The state also should encourage schools to offer before- and after4school care, the council added.

As part of a broader effort to aid at-risk children, the report called for expanded dropout-prevention and alternative-school programs, as well as counseling services, health clinics, and drug-abuse-prevention programs in all districts.

To improve elementary and secondary education, the council said it supports the "rigorous enforcement" of school standards adopted in 1983. It also said that by 1989 the state should mandate that every school offer a core curriculum comprising 38 units every year. Currently, schools only need to offer 30 of the 38 units each year.

Districts that have too few students to offer all of the courses or that fail to implement the requirements should be consolidated, the council said. In addition, it said the state board of education should present a school-consolidation proposal to the legislature in 1989, and that "action on such a plan should be a prerequisite for additional tax revenues" for education.

Those ideas are likely to be contentious among the state's more than 300 school districts, many of which have vehemently opposed similar proposals over the past decade.

The council also urged that the state develop a method of comparing districts through a statewide "report card." In addition, the report said procedures for denying accreditation to failing districts should be streamlined, and that the state should be authorized to impose new administrators on educationally "bankrupt" schools.

To attract and retain qualified teachers, the council urged that salaries be increased to a level comparable to those offered in surrounding states.

The report also called for the creation of "teacher's academies" to help teachers upgrade their mastery of subject matter and to learn new teaching techniques. And it recom8mended that administrators be required to participate in staff-development programs every two years.

In addition, the council urged the state to support peformanced-based pay, alternative routes to teacher certification, and decentralization of school management.

The report also called for improved coordination between high-school and postsecondary vocational-education programs. And it offered several reform proposals in the area of higher education, including improved teacher-training programs, increased faculty salaries, and the termination of "duplicative" degree programs.

Recommendations Lauded

The business group's proposals were greeted warmly by the state's political and education leaders.

Michael Gauldin, Mr. Clinton's press secretary, said the Governor has strongly supported many of the council's recommendations.

"Many parts of the report are included in his own legislative recommendations" for the session that begins in January, Mr. Gauldin said.

He said the Governor agrees that taxes should not be raised unless taxpayers can be shown how new revenues would be spent.

A spokesman for Ms. Steele said she also supports the council's proposals, particularly those on preschool education, teacher pay, and teachers' academies.

Ed Bullington, president of the Arkansas Teachers Association, said he was particularly encouraged by the call for increased teacher salaries "in a state that's 50th in teacher pay." The backing of business leaders, he added, "should make a positive contribution" to school reform.

He cautioned, however, that enacting new programs and requirements without adequate funding could have a "negative impact" on teacher salaries.

Archie Schaffer, the council's executive director, said the group is likely to press for action on teacher pay raises, early-childhood programs, and school consolidation first, noting that other reforms may require additional study.

"This is an agenda for a decade," he said.

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