It’s Wednesday, July 24, 2019 — 91 days after the legislative session officially adjourned on April 24, 2019. What’s so special about today? All bills passed by the state legislature become laws 91 days upon adjournment (unless they contained an “emergency clause” to allow them to go into effect sooner).
According to an analysis by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, legislators passed 1,092 bills out of the thousands that were filed this session. Of those that passed, almost 400 bills contained emergency clauses, mainly about state agency budgets.
Now seems like a good time to recap a few of the dozens of new education laws now in effect. This blog series will highlight some of the most important new laws affecting early childhood education, grade-level reading, student discipline and well-being, school funding, school accountability, and educational opportunities for immigrant students. We will suggest some next steps that advocates can take between now and the 2021 legislative session to better address the educational needs of all children and families and help move Arkansas’s education system from “adequacy” to excellence.
The first post in our education blog series will focus on what legislative changes we can expect for our littlest learners – or, in many cases, what we can still hope for in 2021.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
- After nearly a decade of flat funding, Governor Hutchinson and lawmakers gave a much-needed $3 million boost to the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K program during the 2017 legislative session. Pre-K funding remained flat again during the 2019 legislative session. Many programs are still struggling to keep their doors open, pay their educators a self-supporting wage, and meet the high quality standards for which Arkansas has long been recognized nationally. We are hopeful that investment in quality pre-K and infant and toddler care will gain more ground in the 2021 legislative session and beyond.
- We know that positive early childhood experiences lay the foundation for a strong start in life. But we can’t help our littlest learners without also helping the educators who care for them. In 2018, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) found that 40 percent of early childhood educators in Arkansas are food insecure. They are significantly underpaid compared to their counterparts in public pre-schools and lack many of the same benefits. Perhaps not surprisingly, this stress contributes to their much higher risk of depression. AACF and our partners in the Invest Early Coalition worked with legislators to help solve this problem. Sponsored by Senator James Sturch, Senate Bill 618 would have created a four-year pilot program to provide a tax incentive to qualifying early childhood educators, which increases as they earn higher levels of education and training. We were thrilled to see the bill pass unanimously in the Senate with bipartisan support! But unfortunately, the clock ran out: session adjourned the next day, so the bill never had a chance for a vote in the House of Representatives.
- Perhaps the biggest legislative change affecting our early childhood education system is Act 910: the Transformation and Efficiencies Act of 2019. This 2,047-page law will cut the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 42 down to 15. As part of this Act, all education-related agencies and programs will soon be merged into the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE), which traditionally has governed K-12 public schools. The Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K program, which is currently operated by the Department of Human Services’ Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education (DCCECE), will soon be part of the Department of Education. So will other agencies such as the Department of Higher Education, which oversees the public colleges and universities who credential our early childhood educators. It will be important for advocates to pay attention to how so many moving parts now will be working together in the best interests of young children as they grow through the education pipeline.
- Act 131, by lead sponsors Rep. Mary Bentley and Sen. Bledsoe, requires the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education to make information about starting a child care business more easily accessible on its website. It looks like the Division has already made progress meeting many of the law’s requirements: https://humanservices.arkansas.gov/about-dhs/dccece/programs-services/child-care-licensing
- Act 506, also by lead sponsor Rep. Bentley, establishes a “farm to school and early childhood education program” within the Arkansas Agriculture Department, with the goals of improving children’s nutrition and teaching them about gardens and farms in their own communities. The Act authorizes the Department to hire a full-time program coordinator, who would be responsible for incorporating more agriculture and nutrition education in schools and early childhood programs across the state.
- See AACF’s “Kids at the Capitol 2019: Legislative Summary” to learn more about some of the most important bills that passed (or failed) this session on education, child welfare, economic security, health, juvenile justice, state tax and budget, ballot initiatives, and issues affecting immigrant families.
- Thank your representatives if they sponsored or voted for legislation to help improve educational opportunities for young children. You can find your elected officials here on our website.
- Keep up with what’s happening in early childhood education in Arkansas on the Invest Early Coalition’s Facebook page.
- Attend or watch online the State Board of Education’s monthly meetings, when details about the Governor’s transformation plan and any changes to the structure of early childhood governance may be discussed.