Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has proposed a broad education reform plan for a state that has struggled to improve student achievement in recent years, and that faces a court order to overhaul how it pays for schools.
His vision, outlined in a speech to a Little Rock civic group earlier this month, calls for raising academic standards by requiring more rigorous course requirements for graduation, linking teacher pay raises to student performance, and restructuring the state’s accountability system to include annual spring testing.
Titled “The Next Step: A Blueprint for Continued Education Reform in Arkansas,” the plan does not provide details for the proposals or say how the changes would be financed, however.
The plan is intended, the Republican governor wrote in a letter to Arkansas residents, to offer a “visionary proposal to not only advance our existing reforms but also make additional changes. These reforms are designed to produce concrete results.”
In addition, Mr. Huckabee wants to offer stipends or additional pay to certified teachers in such hard-to-fill subjects as mathematics, special education, and foreign languages. And high school could be made tougher, he suggests, by requiring students to have four units of mathematics.
Finally, colleges and high schools could form better relationships with each other by expanding opportunities for high school students to earn college credits, with the goal of having them earn an associate’s degree by 12th grade, the governor says.
The plan comes eight months after a state chancery judge declared Arkansas’ school funding formula unconstitutional because it does not provide adequate funding for needier school districts.
While Gov. Huckabee has appealed that decision, and did not mention it in his blueprint, the case looms large over any plan to improve education statewide. The 2001 ruling marked the third time in 20 years that the funding formula had been declared unconstitutional. (“Arkansas School Finance System Overturned,” June 6, 2001.)
For now, anyway, it’s the governor’s reform package that is causing the buzz in education circles. “There is some good stuff and quite a bit of fluff in there,” said Sen. John A. Riggs, a Democrat. He was disappointed that the governor didn’t talk more specifically about teacher salaries.
“It’s a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Mr. Riggs said of the governor’s teacher- pay proposal. “Teachers in Arkansas basically get minimum wage.”
“We have built a system where there is local control,” Mr. Riggs added, “which is absolutely in juxtaposition to what the state constitution says we should be doing. We have to look at our complete tax structure.”
But Raymond Simon, the director of the state department of education, views the proposals as a way to continue reform efforts already under way in the state.
Mr. Simon said Mr. Huckabee’s plan would help build on the state’s “Smart Start” initiative, which began in 1998 with the goal of having all students meet or exceed grade-level requirements in reading and math by 4th grade, and on “Smart Step,” which focuses on improving performance in those same subjects for students in grades 5-8.
Arkansas has raised resources for poor schools in the state’s Mississippi Delta region by appropriating $8.5 million over the past two years to raise achievement in poor districts.
"[Mr. Huckabee’s plan] is a very logical extension to Smart Start and Smart Step, and it’s compatible with federal legislation,” Mr. Simon said.
But Sid Johnson, the president of the Arkansas Education Association, an 18,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, was more critical. “You can’t talk about reform without talking about money,” he said.
And while Mr. Huckabee’s blueprint would link continued salary increases to student progress and accountability measures, Mr. Johnson said it’s already hard to attract and keep teachers in the state because of low pay.
The AEA lobbied last year for an $8,500 increase in the average teacher salary. Arkansas teachers’ pay falls about $3,000 below the Southern regional average and $8,000 beneath the national average, according to the union.
Gov. Huckabee signed into law last year a measure that raised teachers’ salaries by $3,000 over two years. But Mr. Johnson said a clause allowed districts facing deficits not to phase in the raises—and many districts are falling back on that provision in the face of budgetary woes.
“We want to work with the governor,” Mr. Johnson said. “But the devil is in the details.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Huckabee Wants to Link Ark. Teacher Pay, Achievement