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Arkansas education secretary withdraws Solution Tree contract after legislative opposition

Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda

Arkansas’ education chief withdrew from legislative review a $99.4 million contract with an Indiana-based education company following pushback from lawmakers on the proposal’s high cost and the vendor’s effectiveness.

During Friday’s Arkansas Legislative Council meeting, Sen. Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals, said Education Secretary Jacob Oliva asked to withdraw a proposed seven-year contract with Solution Tree, which has implemented its professional learning community program in Arkansas since 2017.

In a Thursday email to ALC’s co-chairs, Sen. Terry Rice and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, Oliva requested that the contract be pulled from the agenda and said his agency would let them know when it intends to resubmit it.

A copy of the email was provided by Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell, who also issued the following statement:

“ADE is responsible for ensuring a fair and transparent procurement process; the department is neutral on the vendor selected for this contract. Based on feedback and concerns expressed over the last week regarding the procurement process, ADE felt it was prudent to do its due diligence and address additional questions and concerns before moving forward with the contract.”

According to the proposed contract, Solution Tree would receive $15.7 million in the first year for professional development training. The total projected cost over the contract’s term is $99.4 million. The company describes the training as a “research-based cohesive synchronized system of professional learning, professional learning communities, providing support to adult and student learners across the State.”

The state first awarded a $4 million no-bid contract to Solution Tree in 2017. In February, lawmakers requested an audit of the company’s contract after learning Solution Tree has received more than $140 million from the state, school districts and education cooperatives, according to the Arkansas Times. The audit has not yet been completed.

Oliva’s request to withdraw the contract comes after much discussion in Tuesday’s ALC Review subcommittee meeting, during which lawmakers asked why the cost of the contract was significantly higher than other bids and how the vendor was selected.

Office of State Procurement Director Jessica Patterson said Solution Tree was awarded the contract after receiving the highest total score by five evaluators. Bids from other vendors included $18.9 million from Florida’s MGT, $22.89 million from Pennsylvania’s Carnegie Learning Inc. and $25.97 million from Mississippi’s Bailey Education Group.

Lawmakers also questioned whether it was wise to continue a contract with a provider that has failed to yield desired results.

According to a new report from the University of Arkansas’ Office for Education Policy, participation in Solution Tree’s PLC at Work program yielded “no statistically significant effect” on weighted student achievement or student value-added growth.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Rep. Hope Duke, a Cave Springs Republican and former school board member, questioned why the state would go back to a company that “didn’t significantly move the needle and are more expensive.”

“Every year we don’t meet the mark, we are failing kids,” Duke said. “And so I’m having a hard time understanding why we are going back and taking another bite at the apple with a company that had seven years of our students and the data shows they didn’t make that big a difference.”

Oliva said Tuesday that the program can be used to help implement components of the LEARNS Act, a 2023 law that made sweeping changes to the state’s education system, including increasing the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and creating a school voucher program.

A sustainability plan was not part of the first round of implementing professional learning communities in Arkansas, but will be now, Oliva said. The state doesn’t currently have the capacity to lead this work on its own, so the goal with a continued Solution Tree partnership would be to train Arkansans to take over the work at the end of the seven-year contract.

“We should not rely on a company to do this work,” Oliva said. “We have experts and practitioners that have dedicated their lives to improving learning, they should be trained to lead this work. We should not be bringing in people from other states that don’t know what’s best for our students when they’re already here.”

The new contract would also include performance objectives that would be focused on student learning and reviewed annually, Oliva said.

“If we’re not seeing evidence of student learning, then we’re going to have to renegotiate this contract,” he said.

Copyright 2024 KUAR

Antoinette Grajeda / Arkansas Advocate