A 145-page omnibus law that covers everything from school vouchers, to increased pay for teachers and higher literacy standards for elementary students, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ has described her education reform package as “the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history.”
The law, also known as the LEARNS Act, has been the top priority for Sanders since she took office in January. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.
What are Educational Freedom Accounts?
The new voucher program the law creates, called Educational Freedom Accounts, ties state funding for public schools to students. Students who receive an Educational Freedom Account will get 90% of what public schools get per student in state funding from the previous school year. The per-student funding for the 2022-2023 school year was $7,413.
The Educational Freedom Accounts program will be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, creating a tiered priority list for students. At the top of the list for vouchers will be students who are enrolled at F-rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who have an active-duty military parent.
The next priority will be given to students who are enrolled in a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of first-responders. By the 2025-2026 school year, each student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school.
The voucher program has been the most debated provision of the LEARNS Act, gaining praise, and criticism, from state and national groups.
Sanders said the voucher program would end a "one-size-fits-all model," where students attend schools based on their zip code rather than their individual needs.
Critics of the Educational Freedom Accounts said they will divert much-needed state funding meant for public schools to private schools.
How will LEARNS affect salaries for district employees?
The LEARNS Act will raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000 a year, leaving Arkansas behind only Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.
Teachers making above the new $50,000 a year minimum also will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach a subject matter or in a geographic area that is in high demand.
Sanders said the bill would clear the way for 15,249 teachers to receive a raise to the new minimum, which would take effect for the 2023-2024 school year.
The increased starting salaries are an attempt to fill labor shortages at schools around the state. In recent months, school districts have had trouble retaining their staff and recruiting teachers, made worse by the fact Arkansas has had relatively low salaries for teachers when compared with other states. Arkansas has ranked ahead of only Colorado, Missouri and Montana for starting salaries for teachers. The minimum salary for teachers in the state was set at $36,000 a year, compared with a national average of $41,770, according to the National Education Association.
The law repeals the state's salary schedule for teachers, instead requiring each school district to come up with its own pay structure for educators. Districts must decide for themselves to what degree they can reward educators' experience and education, state officials and lawmakers said.
Some education leaders have said their districts will struggle to fairly compensate teachers for their experience or education levels as a result of the law. As a result, they worry educators will leave their districts for others that can afford more broader pay scales.
LEARNS also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year.
The move is meant to make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance, something Sanders hinted at when she campaigned on accountability for teachers. Teachers will still have the "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before they can be fired.
Brooks, who was one of the bill’s two sponsors, said repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act is something superintendents asked for to help with "the challenge of moving on from teachers who they deem aren't performing up to their expectations."
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, the House minority leader, expressed concerns, however.
"As a teacher for three decades, I am worried about what this will do to the teaching profession," she said. "It does raise the minimum salary, but it revokes workplace protections and unnecessarily voids a uniform salary schedule that was mandated by the courts. That's a slap in the face to educators and will exacerbate our teacher shortage."
What else does the education overhaul do?
The LEARNS Act also sets a new standard for literacy in Arkansas, barring students -- with exceptions -- who fail to meet the state Department of Education's reading requirements from advancing from the third grade. The bill calls for 120 literacy coaches and grants for families to hire tutors to assist students with reading.
High school students also will have the "option to earn a high school diploma through a career-ready pathway," where a student could take classes to prepare them for a career that does not require a college degree, such as automotive mechanics or agriculture.
The bill requires high schools to offer students a "career ready" pathway for the ninth-grade class by the 2024-2025 year to focus their education on "modern career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas," as part of a focus on technical education.
The law also includes codification of Sanders' executive order on Critical Race Theory, which requires the Department of Education to review policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory."
Also included in the act are recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which reconvened this summer, mandating that public schools develop a comprehensive school safety assessment and work with local police to improve safety.
What are the LEARNS work groups?
The day after LEARNS was signed into law, Sanders and state Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talked to the state Board of Education about the next steps to bring the provisions of the law to fruition.
Six work groups are being assembled by the state Department of Education to develop recommendations for its rules and policies.
These work groups each focus on a specific topic: school safety; early learning; parental empowerment; teaching and learning; educator workforce and career readiness, according to a memo from the agency.
Over 1,000 people submitted applications to be on one of the work groups, Oliva said during a March 29 online forum.
By law, most of these rules are required to be in place by July 1, 2024, Oliva said.
How much will the package cost?
The LEARNS Act will cost the state $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that coming in the form of new spending, according to a study by the Arkansas Department of Education.
In year two, the cost will increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.
In the third year, the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million, said Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration.
LEARNS Act basics compiled by Josh Snyder of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Information contributed by Neal Earley and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Last updated Aug. 10, 2023.