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Reactions to Sanders' education plan focus on voucher program for students

by Neal Earley, Cynthia Howell | February 8, 2023 at 6:31 p.m.
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced details of her education plan on the marble steps leading to the Arkansas House of Representatives on Wednesday, February 8, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Reactions to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education plan poured in Wednesday from throughout Arkansas and even around the nation.

Sanders' plan — which she calls Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety, or LEARNS — would include a large pay raise for Arkansas teachers and a voucher program for parents and students.

The voucher program was of particular interest to Jerry Cox, president of Family Council.

"Governor Sanders and members of the General Assembly intend to pass good school choice legislation this year," Cox said in a statement. "We want to work with our friends to pass legislation that will help Arkansas families without regulating nonpublic school students.

“A lot of families feel like public education has deteriorated over the years, and they don’t like the direction it’s heading. For those families, school choice legislation could give them real alternatives that will help their children succeed. This is a critical issue for families, and our organization plans to address it.”

The Reform Alliance, a Little Rock-based nonprofit organization that supports school choice, hailed the LEARNS initiative. Laurie Lee is chairman of the organization that partners with the Arkansas Department of Education to administer the Succeed Scholarship program, which offers students more than $7,000 to cover private school tuition and fees for K-12 education.

“We are ecstatic to hear details of Gov. Sanders’ decisive reform initiative," Lee said in a statement. "Not only do we see a sharp focus on early childhood education to give our students a strong start, but there are tools here to empower parents to make sure their child is enrolled in an educational environment that meets their individual needs.

“Traditional public schools are the backbone of our educational system, but we meet parents and students every day who, for whatever reason, find the school they’re assigned to based on their ZIP code simply doesn’t work for their child, and they don’t have the resources to consider an alternative.

"I’m delighted our governor has chosen to make education a priority and, along with her tremendously experienced staff, is building robust choice tools for parents in Arkansas,” Lee added.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016, is the founder and chairman of ExcelinEd in Action. The nonprofit is the sister organization to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and works to advance school-related legislation at the state level.

“I applaud [Gov. Sanders'] transformative approach to empower families, support educators and put children at the center of learning," Bush said in a statement. "By focusing on every level of a student’s educational journey — from early learning to workforce skills — this education plan will leave a generational legacy for all Arkansas families.”

Tom Newell is the vice president of government affairs for Yes. Every Kid., an organization that bills itself as working to change "the current top-down standardized model" of public schools into "a bottom-up approach that enables every family and student to customize an education that best matches their values and priorities."

“Arkansas LEARNS will expand and improve learning opportunities across the state," Newell said in a statement. "This landmark legislative proposal will empower families to choose the education that’s best for them. Today’s announcement demonstrates that Gov. Huckabee Sanders is a national leader who wants to remove barriers to learning, ensuring families decide how and where their child is educated.

“We look forward to continuing to work with Gov. Huckabee Sanders and the Arkansas Legislature to advance historic, bottom-up solutions that respect the dignity of every kid.”

Not every comment was positive. Olivia Gardner, the education policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, argued that the proposed vouchers would be "incredibly detrimental" to Arkansas' public school system.

"There are components of this package that we may enthusiastically support, but 'empowering' some Arkansas families should not come at the expense of others," Gardner said in a statement. "The legislation would create 'education freedom accounts' that parents could use to send their children to private or religious schools, or to home school their children. In the first year of this program, only students most in need would qualify, but within three years it would be fully available to all of Arkansas’s students."

Gardner added that public schools "are economic pillars of our communities, especially in rural parts of our state, and we should be focused on doing everything we can to build them up."

— Cynthia Howell

2:15 p.m.: Sanders' education plan includes $50,000 minimum salary for teachers, voucher program for students

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Wednesday details of what she described as “the most far-reaching, bold and conservative education reforms anywhere in the entire country,” which would include a large pay raise for Arkansas teachers and a voucher program for parents and students.

[DOCUMENT: Governor's office pamphlet on Sanders' plans for education reforms » arkansasonline.com/28learns/]

Speaking in front assembled group of Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol, Sanders unveiled details of her long-awaited education plan. The plan includes raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 a year and a voucher program for students to attend private or home schools. The voucher program, called education freedom accounts, will be phased in over three years, the governor said.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » youtube.com/watch?v=cG2aCYds-ic]

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » youtube.com/watch?v=MR2Cf-GIAX4]

“Like most other states, we’re dealing with a teacher shortage,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t help that Arkansas offers some of the lowest teacher pay in the country. That changes today.”

While a bill has yet to be made publicly available, Sanders said her plan also will include funding for reading coaches to improve literacy, bonuses “to our best educators,” grants for struggling students to hire tutors and a “dual diploma program” to better prepare students to enter the workforce upon graduation.

—Neal Earley

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