The Re-Invention of Regional Service Co-ops in Arkansas

Last Updated: August 01, 2003

The following is intended to be a thought-provoking, but non-prescriptive, look at the future of Regional Education Service Cooperatives in Arkansas. The decisions reached, however, must be made with the full and equal involvement of the existing co-ops, the districts they serve, and the Arkansas Department of Education.

The History of Educational Service Agencies

The concept of educational service agencies (ESAs) is not new. Their history can be traced back to 1829 when the Delaware County Offices of Education were established. In 1849 the legislative assembly in Oregon established the office of the county school commissioner (Levis 1983). These were the early visions for regional service agencies. Today, more than 600 ESAs span the country (AESA 2003), with fewer than a dozen states in which no ESAs exist. For schools unable to economically justify directly providing a full range of services that may be low-demand but are desired or required, education service agencies (ESAs) can serve as a valuable resource. Highly successful models exist in several states, including Washington, Iowa, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan and New York.

Educational service agencies are typically classified into three types (Stephens 1998):

  • Special Districts: This structure involves a legally constituted unit of school government between the state education agency and local school districts. Found in at least twelve states-California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington-these special districts are usually established by the state and/or in conjunction with local districts.
  • Regionalized State Agencies: In this form, ESAs are established as a regional branch of the state education agency. While several states, such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, at one time operated regionalized agencies staffed by state employees and funded by the state, they have since been dissolved. New Jersey notably retains its county offices of education, but their focus is largely one of administrative services to schools.
  • Cooperative Units: Under this structure, two or more school districts band together to provide one or more common services. These units, which exist to some degree in approximately twenty states, including Wisconsin and Arkansas provide anything from specific cooperative services, such as special education or purchasing, to a full array of joint services. In Arkansas, the Regional Education Service Cooperatives were established as intermediate service units, but are cooperative units in structure.

Several states, such as Ohio and Michigan, have multiple combinations of the above forms of ESAs in operation simultaneously.

The Problem and the Opportunity

In Arkansas today there are fifteen regional Education Service Cooperatives established under enabling legislation in 1981 (Act 360) and 1985 (The Education Service Cooperative Act). Each school district in the state-with the exception of those in Pulaski County-falls within the regional service area of one of the fifteen co-ops. Each provides a wide, but different, array of services to school districts across their region. It is left to each district to opt in or out of membership in the regional co-op.

In 1997 the Arkansas General Assembly created the Cooperative Education Services Council, consisting of the directors of each of the fifteen co-ops. The Council served as a loosely organized "umbrella" under which all co-op directors met, but funding for the Council has since been rescinded.

In 1995, the Education Service Co-ops were authorized to establish technology training centers and to hire technology coordinators to assist member schools with technology-related planning, staff development, network design, and grant access. Annual funds are allocated by the State Board of Education for this purpose and are accessible to the co-ops through a grant proposal process (ADE 2003).

Largely entrepreneurial, because of the small amount of state funds devoted to their core funding, each of the regional co-ops is directed by a combination of the co-op director, a board of directors consisting of representatives from each of the member districts, and the competitive grants opportunities it successfully pursues. While the history of the regional co-ops is of stalwart independence, the current need to restructure education in Arkansas suggests that it might be appropriate to streamline, coordinate, and redirect both current and new ESA services, targeting them to to small districts across the state.

At issue is not 'why' but 'how' the independent co-ops can be brought into a uniform structure that equally benefits those districts that most need their services. That structure should be coordinated and directed by an authority that is independent of the Arkansas Department of Education, but operates in collaboration with it. It should maintain, to the extent possible, the autonomous entrepreneurship currently exercised by the regional co-ops. The regional co-op model in Arkansas represents an unprecedented opportunity to transform itself into a systemic state network of ESAs that can respond to the needs of Arkansas districts and to legislative and judicial demands that the districts are unable to adequately address on their own.

The following represents one vision for how the existing fifteen regional service co-ops in Arkansas might be re-created to better meet the needs of small and rural school districts. However, it is important that all involved parties be brought to the planning table to work through the variety of options available and decisions reached.

The Premise
  • Small schools have many advantages over their much larger counterparts. However, they are often unable to economically justify providing low-demand, high-cost courses or the full array of ancillary services associated with a comprehensive school model.
  • It is possible to capitalize on the assets of smallness, while overcoming deficiencies. It is not necessary to view consolidation as the only or best alternative for efficiently providing a quality education for rural youth.
  • There are multiple means by which the "goals" of consolidation can be realized without the loss of local control, the economic death knell to the community, the massive transportation of students, the ballooning of second-level administrative staff, or the widespread construction of new facilities.
  • There should not be an attempt to re-create or overly glorify the little red school house of the past (or present). Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator for retaining the status quo, but change is not only required--it is inevitable. Change, however, can occur in many forms. Consolidation of schools or districts is not necessary in order for meaningful change to occur.

The initiatives outlined in this series of papers represent an informed, research-based approach to improving education in rural Arkansas without the significant community, social, academic, and human costs associated with widespread district and/or school consolidation. There are much more reasonable, effective, and efficient alternatives. The reorganization of the Arkansas regional Education Service Cooperatives presents one such alternative.

Re-inventing Arkansas' Regional Education Service Co-ops-Strategies to Consider

1. Reorganization of regional Education Service Co-ops into a systemic statewide network of regional education service agencies

Under the Arkansas "Education Service Cooperative Act of 1985" (Act 349), "not more than fifteen (15) multi-county education service cooperatives of school districts" were established to provide to school districts "which choose to use them" assistance in:
  • Meeting or exceeding accreditation standards and equalizing educational opportunities;
  • Using educational resources more effectively through cooperation among school districts; and
  • Promoting coordination between school districts and the Department of Education in order to provide services that are consistent with the needs identified by school districts and the educational priorities of the state as established by the General Assembly or the board.

These goals need not change to meet the needs of small Arkansas districts today, but the organization, direction, collaboration, and funding streams are in serious need of updating. As they have evolved since 1981, the Education Service Co-ops act largely as independent, entrepreneurial organizations. Few services are provided systematically across all regions. Deciding which services to provide is largely by default, guided by the funding opportunities and grantsmanship, rather than the careful assessment of need on the part of member districts. Reorganizing existing co-ops into a true statewide system of education service agencies would require little in the way of additional legislative authority, but would require each Co-op to rethink and restructure its program to focus on needs identified by its district members, as essential to their efforts to meet the curriculum and other standards set by the state in response to the Arkansas Supreme Court or and the federal No Child Left Behind Legislation.

2. Increasing and/or redirecting the core budget of the Education Service Co-ops

Many Co-ops have built their organizations into multi-million dollar enterprises with large staffs and extensive facilities. The total budget of the Co-ops in 1985 was approximately $800,000 compared to the current budget of about $11,000,000. The base, or core, funding provided by the state directly to the co-ops rose from $200,000 in 1983 to a current base funding of $328,000 (SAESC 2003).

The State should consider increasing the amount of core funding to each Co-op and/or redirecting applicable state grant funds to core funding, allowing the Co-ops to systematically provide a broader array of services to districts in an effective and cost-efficient manner. Extensive reliance on grant funds, which respond to opportunities rather than identified needs, could be reduced. While the goal is a broader array of targeted services to those districts that need them most, the determination of which services to provide should remain with the member districts of each Co-op.

3. Tying core funding to core services and member district size

Statewide ESA systems typically serve both large, metropolitan districts as well as small non-metro districts, in an effort to Serve all and to serve efficiently. Large district members often feel they receive few benefits that they could not provide on their own, while the small districts often feel overlooked as inconsequential to the larger purpose of the ESA and the larger number of students represented by the larger district members. A single urban district in an ESA can represent well over half of students served, and, depending on the administrative structure of the ESA, can thereby largely determine its programmatic agenda.

There is the opportunity in Arkansas to break from this mold, by consciously re-creating a system of Education Service Co-ops that primarily exists to meet the needs of those districts that are unable to provide a full array of comprehensive services to their students. Instead of the 20,000 student minimum as required by Act 349 for each Education Service Co-op, the core clientele of each existing Co-op could be those districts that cannot meet the curriculum or service requirements as set forth by the state or imposed by No Child Left Behind.

An alternative funding model for Arkansas ESAs might involve the tying of core funding for the regional Co-ops to a set of "core services" as defined by member districts factoring in the size of districts served by the ESA. For example, for each small district served (that is, one with less than a defined enrollment), the ESA would receive a core funding level that is somewhat higher than the amount it receives for each mid-sized or large district. In this way, the priority for the regional Co-ops would remain with smaller schools. Mid-size and larger districts could still be served as ESA members, but their services would be largely dependent on the attraction of entrepreneurial funding, while a set of more basic, or core, services as required by smaller districts would be provided through core funding.

There are many advantages of small schools, but there may also be circumstances where the cost or inability to provide necessary or required services and advanced curriculum forces small schools to "do without." By re-creating the role of current Education Service Co-ops to focus on the high-cost, low-demand needs of Arkansas schools, the best of both worlds can be achieved-lower cost, high-demand services can be handled by the local school, while higher cost, low-demand services can be handled cooperatively through the Education Service Co-op. In this arrangement there are no losers.

4. Integrating the administration of the Regional Service Co-ops with the Arkansas Department of Education

The potential organizational structure under which the existing regional co-ops could be brought into a statewide, uniform support system for Arkansas school might include reorganization of the Arkansas Department of Education to establish:
  • Two separate divisions within ADE, including a Division of Accountability and a Division of Instructional Support
  • Two assistant directors for instructional support-one of whom who would be selected by the Co-op Directors and recommended to the State Board of Education for approval. The Assistant Director for Co-op Instructional Support would represent the needs of member districts in the Co-ops and would be under the operational control of the Co-op Directors. The Assistant Director for ADE Instructional Support would be hired by ADE to serve the instructional needs of districts not served by the Education Service Co-ops.
Two purposes would be accomplished by the ADE Assistant Director for Co-op Instructional Support:
  • To streamline instructional support services, eliminating duplication between existing ADE programs/staff and that of the Education Service Co-ops; and
  • To insure that the needs of small school districts are met through the coordinated efforts of the Education Service Co-ops.
All schools would be held accountable to the ADE Division of Accountability. Any district falling into either academic or fiscal distress would immediately become a client of a regional Education Service Co-op.


The existing fifteen regional Education Service Cooperatives are not uniformly meeting the instructional, curricular, ancillary services, technology, professional development, or distance learning needs of Arkansas school districts, nor are they held accountable for the services they provide. Nevertheless, they represent a huge, largely untapped resource for responding to many of the demands currently being placed on small districts in Arkansas. Some educational functions can best be handled at the local school level; other functions requiring less accessible expertise, higher cost services, or services that may realize some economy of scale could be handled by the regional Co-ops. With the re-creation of a statewide system of regional Co-ops, the needs of small schools and districts could be met, in a much more productive, cost-efficient manner than could be achieved through consolidation of districts or schools.


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