After the Arkansas LEARNS Act was signed into law last week, public school districts across the state are bracing for what some believe will be a new frontier for education.
Siloam Springs School District officials have been busy preparing for the bill and the many mandates that come with it.
"A lot of it is still unknown," said Superintendent Jody Wiggins. "We still don't have enough information."
Wiggins has been busy looking at estimates and meeting with district officials to best prepare for the impact of the bill. While he has his fair share of concerns, he also thinks that some of the new LEARNS Act will be beneficial.
"The moving of early childhood, which is Pre-K, under the Department of Education is a good part of the bill. I agree with that completely. Some of the tenants, with respect to career readiness and workforce I agree with those pieces, I think those are good changes," said Wiggins.
Wiggins also explained the new merit pay system as something that the district has been wanting to do, but couldn't pay for it.
"Merit pay is something that we have toyed with in this district in the past, but we could never come up with the funding for it, so if the state is going to fund that and run that I'm all for it. I'm for anything that can reward good teachers."
The superintendent cited the focus on mental health assistance, financial incentives and scholarships for would-be teachers, new safety protocols and inclusion measures to be good things to come out of the LEARNS Act.
Other parts of the bill, he said, are good on paper but may not play out as intended.
"The maternity leave piece of the law is a great idea. It has an additional financial impact on school districts, because the district will have to take on half of that cost and there's no funding for that," said Wiggins.
He continued, saying "There are other portions of the law that require us to add services or add academic curriculums or screeners, and I'm not sure where the money for those mandates is going to come from, so those are some of the concerns I have."
One major portion of the bill that was positively received across the state was the teacher raises, which included a mandate to start teacher salaries at $50,000. Everyone already making more than $50,000 will receive a $2,000 raise.
Wiggins says that he's optimistic, but also concerned.
"There are some portions of the bill that I feel good about, as long as the money follows it up. I'm all for our teachers making more money. I'm a little worried about how the funding is going to come to the school district from the state and how we are going to afford that."
Based on the district's initial estimates, Wiggins believes that the raises will not be fully funded. "We don't believe that the number we've seen will adequately fund that. It's a concern for me. It's a concern for our district."
The average teacher salary in the Siloam Springs School District is approximately $51,500.
The teacher salary schedule for the district starts at $43,250. It's about year 10 when a teacher reaches $50,000 on the current salary schedule.
"There are a lot of districts that this is going to have a much bigger effect on than it does us," noted Wiggins.
While concerns over funding are present, Wiggins shared other concerns that he has with the bill.
"There are parts that concern me until we get further definition," said Wiggins. "There's a piece in there about retaining students at the third grade if they're not on the third grade reading level. The elimination of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act is also a concern for me because we've had that for a long time. We know what our policies are and what our procedures are."
Perhaps his biggest concern of all, not just for the district, but for public education as a whole, is the new school choice measures.
"I personally have some concern about the educational freedom accounts and expanding tax dollars to help pay for private school and homeschool students. I believe that at some point that's going to have a trickle-down effect on public schools and public school finances," said Wiggins.
"It was all packed together I think in one big bill so that there could be things that passed that might not have passed as individual items, and some of those things are concerning to public schools," added Wiggins.
Wiggins noted that the district is growing, but that growth isn't promised, and if district enrollment starts to decline, it could put the school in a worse spot with funding.
"Short-term, all of our teachers are going to get a raise, and that's a good thing. Long-term, for the district, I hope that our growth continues. I don't know if we'll lose students to private schools or homeschool, but I hope that we continue to grow and flourish," said Wiggins.
He continued, saying "The bill is huge, and the implications of the bill probably won't be known for five to 10 years down the road just because there's so much packed into it. It's going to change what education looks like in the state of Arkansas."