Editor's note: For more than a decade the Rural Community Alliance (RCA) has been fighting for small schools and small towns. Serving some of the most underserved communities in Arkansas, RCA works tirelessly to strengthen education, promote economic development, and give voice to rural people. RCA is a founding partner of the new Rural Schools Collaborative, and we are pleased to share what is truly an outstanding report on their 2015 accomplishments. Thank you to RCA's executive director, Candace Williams, for passing this information along to us.
Please help us help them by supporting RCA's annual fund drive. Remember, small charitable investments can lead to big things in rural places. Please donate here through our Windows of Giving Program! Thank you for your consideration.
By RCA Staff:
The 2015 legislative session was busy and productive for RCA members and staff.
RCA continues to work with the Arkansas Op- portunity to Learn Campaign and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools to strengthen public schools in Arkansas. We were part of an effort to obtain slight increases in funding for pre-K and teacher salaries and to hold the line on teacher insurance premiums.
Having prepared the ground with two interim studies, we were finally successful in passing Act 377, a waiver to the minimum enrollment in Arkansas’ school consolidation law, and Act 1286 for pilot K-12 Schools of Agriculture to strengthen economic development and workforce development in rural Arkansas. Along with many RCA members and supporters who have worked for more than a decade to preserve rural schools and communities, Michelle Cadle and Greta Greeno of our Weiner Chapter deserve special mention for their tireless efforts on behalf of both of these causes.
To generate support for the Act 60 waiver, RCA created a website, repealact60.com, and garnered 3,000 signatures on a petition. RCA’s You Tube channel, TheNewRuralArkansas, featured videos demonstrating the strengths of small schools and their importance to rural Arkansas. Facebook pag- es for Rural Community Alliance and Friends of Arkansas Rural Schools and Communities posted photos and testimonials that showed the hardships and injustices caused by Act 60 consolidations.
RCA also joined coalitions that fought against charter school legislation that would have weak- ened local control and significantly drained resources from the public school system. After a strong fight which included spirited social media activity and a large rally at the Capitol, two of the more notorious proposals, HB1733 and SB847, were defeated.
HB1733 would have removed from local control any school classified either now or in the future as “academically distressed”and placed it in a statewide “Achievement School District.” The bill allowed these schools to then be converted into open enrollment charter schools, which could be run by contracted operators while still requiring the taxpayers to fund their operations. The sponsor finally pulled the bill after strong opposition by grassroots groups.
SB847 proposed to create a “right of access” to public school facilities for open enrollment charter schools. This bill would have allowed the Commis- sioner of Education to reassign any buildings that he considered “underutilized” on a public school campus to any charter school that requested them. SB847 passed the Senate handily, but grassroots lobbying efforts were able to stop it in the House Education Committee.
The charter school lobby is strong and well- funded in Arkansas, and we must continue to resist its efforts to erode local control and support for public education.
Acting locally to strengthen public schools
Many RCA chapters participate in efforts to strengthen their local schools, whether on their own or facilitated by RCA staff or funding. Some notable examples include:
- The Eudora Reads project, a community-wide campaign to promote early childhood literacy that includes tutoring pro- grams, reading circles, parent university, and the establishment of a Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
- Summer Learning Camp in Mt. Judea, which gives elementary students learning reinforcement in basic schools as well as arts and science enrichment in mid-summer.
- Matching funds from a King Foundation grant for such diverse activities as a tutoring program and children’s library in Waldo, a parent engagement summit at Dollarway, a children’s theater in Elaine, an initiative that engages fa- thers in their children’s education in Dermott, and the expansion of the Imagination Library project in Prairie County.
- Cooperating wth the Rural Schools Collaborative for nine place-based education grants to rural Arkansas teachers to cover such diverse subjects as community history, creek ecology, an employment fair, a school and community gar- den, a nature trail, a public mural, a health and safety fair, and conservation projects in Alpena, Dermott, Bruno-Pyatt, Fox, Kirby, Lead Hill, and Weiner.
Strengthening communities by building capacity
- The Hughes chapter put up a valiant fight to keep the State Board from consolidating their school with West Memphis. Although unsuccessful, the community were strong advo- cates for their children as they made the transition and con- tinue to hold the WMPS accountable.
- On-going projects include Imagination Libraries in several communities, school foundations, and parent groups.
- Many communities participated in our Step Up for Public Schools walks to call attention to the need to support local schools and access to a quality public education for all children.
Thank you for your time and consideration. Please help the Rural Schools Collaborative assist Arkansas' small communities by making a donation to the RCA annual fund. Click here to make an online donation.
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