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Critical race theory sticking point among Arkansas Senate District 22 candidates

Teaching on race theory among issues in District 22 race by Michael R. Wickline | April 3, 2022 at 2:58 a.m.
From left, state Sen. James Sturch of Batesville, state Rep. John Payton of Wilburn and Ethan Barnes of Hardy are shown in this undated combination photo. All three men are running to represent Arkansas Senate District 22, which Senate District 22, which includes Independence and Sharp counties and parts of Cleburne, Fulton, Lawrence and Izard counties.

In his challenge of state Sen. James Sturch of Batesville in the primary, state Rep. John Payton of Wilburn is panning Sturch over his vote against a bill that aimed to prevent public schools from teaching that the United States is systemically racist.

Sturch defends his vote against the bill by pointing out that he voted for a separate bill that placed into law a process for parents to challenge curricula they feel are misleading, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate.

The third candidate in the Republican primary, Ethan Barnes of Hardy, said he would have voted for the bill that sought to stop public schools from teaching that the United States is systemically racist.

The bill at issue is House Bill 1761 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which fell one vote short of clearing the eight-member Senate Education Committee in the 2021 regular session.

Sturch, a 31-year-old teacher, seeks reelection in Senate District 22, which includes Independence and Sharp counties and parts of Cleburne, Fulton, Lawrence and Izard counties. The state Board of Apportionment approved new boundaries for legislative districts in November.

Sturch has served in the state Senate since 2019 after ousting the late Sen. Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas in the GOP primary in Senate District 19. District 19 includes Independence, Izard and Sharp counties and parts of Fulton and Randolph counties.

Sturch served in the House of Representatives from 2015-2019. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science and secondary education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a master's degree in public administration from UALR. He is married.

Payton, a 55-year-old self-described constitutionalist, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2013.

He attended auctioneers school and owns two auto auction and two used car lots. He is married with three children.

Barnes, 26, said he recently resigned his job as a loan officer and assistant vice president at Centennial Bank in Highland after working there for 4½ years to concentrate on his bid for the state Senate.

He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Arkansas State University. He is engaged to be married.

If none of the three Republican candidates wins a majority of the votes in the May 24 primary, the two top voter-getters will face off in the GOP runoff June 21. The winner of the Republican primary will be unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election.

Payton said voters should cast their ballots for him in part based on his lifetime of experience in various vocations, including a farmer, auctioneer, pilot, truck driver and car dealer, as well as his legislative experience.

"We don't need career politicians," he said. "I listen to people and communicate with people and I return phone calls."

Barnes said voters should vote for him because he isn't a career politician and his financial experience would be useful in the Senate, where he believes he would do a better job than Sturch or Payton.

"I truly believe in service above self," Barnes said.

He said he hasn't filed a campaign finance report yet because he filed to run for the Senate seat March 1 and the report for February was due March 15, and "we had no activity in February." The campaign finance report for March for state candidates is due in the secretary of state's office April 15.

Sturch said voters should reelect him in part because he said he promised voters he would look at both sides of issues and try to find common sense solutions and has done that.

He said he believes he has a proven record of trying to help people and a good record of constituent service.

Sturch said the legislative accomplishment that he is most proud of is Act 456 of 2019, which created the Arkansas Concurrent Challenge Scholarship program financed with excess net proceeds from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. Students are eligible to receive the scholarship for a semester or academic year in which they are enrolled in an endorsed concurrent enrollment course or certificate program under certain conditions.


If elected to the state Senate, Payton said his top priorities would include voting for legislation that would ban the teaching the tenets of critical race theory in the public schools.

"We had a bill, but it failed in the Senate committee" in the 2021 regular session because Sturch wouldn't support it and that's disappointing, he said.

"We needed all five Republicans [on the Senate Education Committee] to stick together."

Four Republican senators on the Senate Education Committee voted for the bill, and Sturch joined two Senate Democrats in voting against it, according to Bureau of Legislative Research records. A Democratic senator was recorded as not voting on the bill.

The bill -- House Bill 1761 by Lowery -- states that curricula, reading materials, teachers' guides, computer programs, computer applications, programs, counseling and activities in public schools and open enrollment public charter schools shall not express, depict or teach any of the following:

• That any race or ethnicity is superior to any other race or ethnicity.

• That any individual from a particular race or ethnicity is inherently racist.

• That any race or ethnicity should feel guilt or shame because of their race or ethnicity.

• That the United States as a nation is systemically racist.

• The promotion of prejudice or discrimination toward any race or ethnicity.

HB1761 also states that a public school or an open enrollment charter school shall not express, depict or teach about race or ethnicity in a manner that prevents or inhibits fair and open discourse that employs reason as a guide for deliberation in the exchange of ideas and opposing points of views.

The bill states that each public school and open enrollment public charter school may promulgate policies for the implementation of the bill and ensure that all parents and legal guardians of public school students are advised of the policies adopted under the bill.

Sturch said "not very many people have said anything to me" about his vote against House Bill 1761.

He said he voted for House Bill 1464 -- which is now Act 684 of 2021 -- that created a formal process that allowed parents to petition schools boards to remove curriculum that parents found offensive.

"It covered anything, whether it is critical race theory or The 1619 Project," Sturch said. The 1619 Project Curriculum is a set of materials based on a New York Times project on the legacy of slavery.

It made more sense to make sure parents and school boards are involved, he said.

"To me, that put it in the right place," Sturch said. "As a conservative, it has always been my view that government closest to the people is best"

He said he has not taught critical race theory and "it is not in our standards and curriculum."

"I don't think censoring it is a good precedent to set," Sturch said.

If there is an instance in which a teacher teaches that one race is better than another, that's a teacher ethics issue, he said.

Barnes said he would have voted for House Bill 1761 to ban the teaching of critical race theory because "I believe it is important that we educate students on the fundamental matters of education, but not to inflict the idea of teaching racism into our public school systems."


Act 1013 of 2021, sponsored by Payton, cut the sales tax paid by purchasers of used vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers priced between $4,000 and $10,000 from 6.5 % to 3.5 %, effective Jan. 1, 2022. Those valued at less than $4,000 already were exempt from the state's sales tax. Act 1013 is projected by the state Department of Finance and Administration to reduce state sales tax revenue by $6.5 million in fiscal 2022, which ends June 30, and$13.1 million in fiscal 2023.

Payton said his other top priorities would include increasing the amount of a used vehicle that's exempt from the state's sales tax to the value below $15,000 and charging the reduced sales tax rate of 3.5 % rather than 6.5 % on the value of the used vehicle between $15,000 and $20,000.

"Inflation has amplified the need for it," he said.

He estimated increasing the value exempt from the state sales tax from below $4,000 to below $15,000 would reduce state general revenue by about $30 million a year.

Barnes said his top priorities would include providing more financial support to local communities so they don't have to increase taxes, and limiting government because "I believe that the government that governs the best governs the least."

Sturch said his top priorities would include education and focusing on concurrent classes and making private and school-based preschool programs more equitable and accessible across the state.

Educating young children in preschools makes a huge difference, he said.


The program provides primarily private health insurance coverage to more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans. The federal government pays for 90% of the cost of the program and the state covers the remaining 10% of the tab.

Payton said that "state dependence on the federal government is not healthy and the Medicaid expansion has increased that dependence."

He said he favors changing the state's Medicaid expansion program to a fee-for service program like traditional Medicaid. "I don't think we can say just get rid of the program.

Legislation that would have ended the use of private health plans for the program and moved beneficiaries to the traditional Medicaid fee-for-service model failed to clear a House committee in 2021. A fee-for-service model would reduce the federal Medicaid contribution to the state by $3 billion over five years, and reduce state expenses by about $180 million over five years, the Department of Human Services estimated last year.

Barnes said that "his focus would be on making sure we help people who can't help themselves while making sure that no dollars are spent on people who simply won't help themselves."

Sturch said he supports the state's Medicaid expansion program.

"I think we have done our best to have a program that works and meets the needs of the people who depend on it."


Payton said he supports vouchers under which tax dollars would be used to help parents pay for their child's private education, "but it would be under strict guidelines.

"We can't dodge our fiscal responsibility to fund K-12 education in our public schools" under the Arkansas Constitution, he said.

Barnes said public funds should go to public schools and "I don't believe we need to send taxpayers' dollars to private schools."

"Our public school districts are the backbone of community," he said.

Sturch said public funds should go to public schools.

"If we do consider sending public funds to private schools, we need to make sure there is a fair and equitable way to hold both accountable," he said. "If there are policies that need to be changed to make all schools successful, that should also be considered."


Payton and Sturch said they opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother.

Barnes said he opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother and in the case of incest.

If someone is raped, the best option is adoption, he said.

Print Headline: 3 seek GOP nod for Senate seat


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