272 Broken Promises: The Lawless Aftermath of Arkansas Act 1240
In Arkansas, as in all 50 states, public schools are operated by the state government. The Arkansas General Assembly creates laws intended to govern our public schools. Arkansans fund these schools, trusting our elected representatives and the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) to enact and enforce appropriate rules for our schools and they way they spend our money.
However, the laws of our public education system are becoming meaningless. Public charter schools, which get approximately $7000 per student from the state of Arkansas, have long received waivers from certain state laws and ADE policies. At first glance, these waivers seem fairly harmless. They only apply to charter schools, right? Wrong. Charter schools are the wedge being used to deliberately separate all public schools from the laws intended to govern them.
In February 2015, the Arkansas House of Representatives filed HB1377 — aiming to level the playing field between charter schools and traditional public school districts by making them equally exempt from following state education law. Initially, the grassroots fight against HB1377 seemed strong enough to prevent the change — making national news. However, with funding from the Walton Family Foundation, HB1377 (renamed Act 1240) ultimately became law.
In April 2015, Arkansas Act 1240 gave the right to apply for charter school waivers to traditional public school districts. Since 2015, whenever any charter school receives a waiver from the ADE, every public school district from which that charter school draws its students can apply for the same waiver. Some of the charter schools in Arkansas are “virtual” online schools, drawing students from all over the state. Even “brick and mortar” charter schools draw students from several districts at once — creating an overlapping map of “traditional” districts eligible for waivers.
In July 2015, former state senator Johnny Key took office as the Arkansas Commissioner of Education. Key’s confirmation was delayed while Arkansas Senator Alan Clark spearheaded a change in the law that would allow an unqualified person to become Education Commissioner. The modified law enabled Johnny Key (whose service on the Senate Education Committee overlapped with Clark’s just before Key left office) to become commissioner without appropriate qualifications, so long as his deputy meets the requirements.
Since the passage of Act 1240 and the appointment of Johnny Key as Education Commissioner, the ADE has more than tripled the number of waivers in effect. They show no sign of slowing down.
When an Arkansas charter school applies for a waiver, it must submit a request to the ADE Charter Authorization Panel. The school gives a reason for their request, but is not required to provide documentation or an alternate plan. No matter how flimsy the rationale behind a waiver request, if the ADE approves it, the waiver goes into effect — for a period up to 20 years. There is no process to appeal, modify, or rescind a waiver once it has been granted.
According to the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy (in this article published during Johnny Key’s brief tenure as the university’s associate vice president for university relations) the most commonly-requested waivers are:
To date, the Arkansas Department of Education has waived 272 different laws, standards, and ADE rules. Arkansans did not vote to waive these laws, nor did we vote to elect the members of the Arkansas Department of Education who made these decisions for us. In the absence of democratic governance and oversight, Arkansas schools are hiring unqualified teachers without a public disclosure requirement, undermining labor standards for teachers, contributing to school re-segregation, and defrauding the public.
Arkansans deserve better. We must publicly examine our laws, repeal any that do not serve, and abide by the laws that remain.