LITTLE ROCK - Many of the bills passed earlier this year took effect at the beginning of August, 90 days after the legislature officially ended the regular session on May 1.
Of the new laws that affect public education, one of the most important is Act 930 of 2017. It makes broad changes in how the state Education Department holds local school districts accountable, and how the state helps districts when they fail to adequately educate students.
The 60-page law deletes much of the old system, including designations of schools as being in academic distress when certain numbers of students fail to score highly enough on standardized tests.
Act 930 instead designates levels of support that the state will provide to troubled schools. The act allows for more types of evaluating schools than solely test scores.
The state Education Department will continue to set and enforce academic standards. It will consider ideas from local educators and members of the community, as well as concepts promoted by national education groups.
This year's ninth graders will be the first high school class required to take a personal financial course in order to graduate. Act 480 of 2017 outlines the basics that a finance class should offer, such as how to manage a checking account, how to live within a household budget, the risks and returns of investing and what goes into retirement planning.
Act 1105 of 2017 limits the amounts of fund balances that school districts may accumulate. If at the close of a fiscal year a district's net balance exceeds 20 percent of that year's net revenue, the district must take steps to bring the balance below 20 percent within five years. The district can use the excess money for construction, for example.
In order to graduate from high school, students will have to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test taken by people seeking citizenship in the United States. Students must correctly answer 60 percent of the questions. The new graduation requirement is in Act 478.
Act 148 affects institutions of higher education that receive state aid. It changes the funding formula to encourage campuses to graduate more students, or to award them a degree that will help them get well paying jobs. The previous funding formula placed more emphasis on student enrollment.
Act 316 creates the Arkansas Future Grant Program. It helps college students avoid having to borrow money if they seek degrees in high demand fields such as nursing, welding and computer science.
The program will pay their tuition and fees for two years at technical and community colleges. There is a community service requirement of 15 hours a semester, and recipients must agree to talk with a mentor at least once a month.
There is no new cost to taxpayers because funding for Arkansas Future Grants was transferred from other scholarship programs.
Some bills passed earlier this year had an emergency clause, which meant that they took effect on the day the governor signed them. Other bills were appropriations that authorize state agency spending. They took effect at the beginning of the current fiscal year, which was July 1.