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Sanders’ education overhaul legislation expected to be introduced Monday

No rush on Sanders school overhaul, Senate leader says by Michael R. Wickline | February 19, 2023 at 8:42 a.m.
FILE — Sen. Breanne Davis asks a question during the Senate Committee on Education meeting Wednesday at the state Capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Arkansas Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said she plans to introduce Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul legislation Monday morning.

Davis said she plans to present the bill to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, which will meet in the Multi-Agency Complex, commonly known as Big MAC, immediately west of the state Capitol. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in Room A of Big MAC, according to the General Assembly's website.

Davis said Friday that a majority of the Senate's 35 members have agreed to be co-sponsors of the bill, and she expects to have at least enough co-sponsors in the Senate to be able to approve an emergency clause for the bill, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

The Senate includes 29 Republicans and six Democrats. The House includes 82 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said Friday that he wants to give senators and the public a few days to read through the bill and get their questions answered about it after it's filed before the Senate Education Committee holds a public hearing on the bill.

"I would love to get it through the Senate next week," he said, but "we are not going to force-feed anything.

"I don't think there is any shockers [in the legislation] based on what has already been released," Hester said.

Senate Democratic leader Greg Leding of Fayetteville said Friday that "talking points are one thing [but] it's important to see the language [in the bill] because details matter. I really do hope they don't try to rush it this week."

Ideally, Leding said he would like to see the Senate Education Committee set a special order of business for a week from Wednesday to hold a public hearing on the bill and give people time to digest the bill.

Sanders aims to combine teacher pay raises with her Arkansas LEARNS plan that prioritizes increasing literacy, empowering parents, holding educators accountable, improving student readiness, and expanding high-speed internet and school safety into one education bill.

On Feb. 8, Sanders unveiled her plan to increase the state's starting teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 a year and offer vouchers to every student as part of what she described as "the most far-reaching, bold and conservative education reforms anywhere in the entire country."

At that time, the Republican governor proposed forgiving teachers' student loan debt if they commit to working in the areas of highest need within the state, and a $10,000 bonus to educators who are "making meaningful gains in the improvement of student outcomes."

There could be an additional $2,000 for every teacher already above $50,000 a year in salary, state Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said Thursday. The local districts will have the responsibility for decisions on structuring salary schedules to recruit, reward and retain teachers in their communities, including those with advanced degrees, he said.

The voucher program -- called education freedom accounts -- would allow students to attend private, parochial or home schools and would be phased in over three years, Sanders said Feb. 8. The education savings account would give parents 90% of what schools are funded on a per-student basis, Oliva said at the time.

Sanders also has said her plan 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. The measure also will repeal the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act.

The bill will cost roughly $300 million for the first year, with $150 million in new spending, she said.

Hester said Friday that he anticipates that bill would cost in the ballpark of $300 million or more.

"The stuff that has been released is relatively accurate," he said.

Leding is skeptical about the projected pricetag of $300 million for the measure in its first year.

"I really would like to see those numbers," he said.

"I want to know what it is going to cost Year 2 and Year 3 as it is fully implemented," Leding said.


State Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said Friday he hopes to file "the big public safety act" either this week or next week.

There will be associated pieces of legislation, he said.

"[For example], you are going to see some human trafficking legislation that is going to split out, but it is going to be associated with the larger public safety package," he said.

Gazaway said he's not sure how many bills will be filed as part of this public safety legislative package.

"There are a lot of proposals that are currently going to be included in the public safety bill that we are going to file, but we are evaluating now as to whether we may need to split some of those out, so I can't give the exact number today," he said.

Asked whether there is a consensus on the projected collective impact of the proposed public safety package on the state's prisons, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, said "let's see a bill before we try to make any sort of determination on future forecast as it relates to capacity and what is going to be needed to address that in terms of cost.

"There is still a lot of things that we have to work through with members of the Legislature, the attorney general's office [and] the governor's office, all who need to be at the table and have part of that conversation," he said.

"We need to see a draft [bill] when it's finished with [the Bureau of Legislative Research] and work through that process."


After passing the Senate Committee on Judiciary last week, a bill that would allow lawsuits against health care professionals who perform "gender transition procedures" on minors is back on the committee's agenda Monday.

Senate Bill 199, by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, has been returned to the committee after being amended by Senate on Thursday.

The amended bill would allow a minor injured by a "gender transition procedure" or a representative for the minor to file civil action against the health care professional who performed the procedure no later than 15 years after the minor turns 18 or would have turned 18 if the minor dies before turning 18. The original bill would have allowed lawsuits within 30 years of when the minor turns 18 or would have turned 18 if the minor dies before turning 18.

The current statute of limitations for most medical malpractice cases in Arkansas is two years, according to state law.

Stubblefield's bill defines a "gender transition procedure" as a medical procedure that aims to alter "or remove physical or anatomical characteristics or features that are typical for the individual's biological sex." Procedures covered by the bill also include those seeking to instill "or create physiological or anatomical characteristics that resemble a sex different from the individual's biological sex."

The bill specifically points to "puberty-blocking drugs," "cross-sex hormones" and "genital or nongenital gender reassignment surgery."


Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, said Friday that he plans to run his amended version of Senate Bill 81 in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

SB81 would no longer exempt an employee, director or trustee of a bona fide school or public library, acting within the scope of his or her regular employment, from being liable for prosecution for a violation of disseminating a writing, film, slide, drawing or other visual reproduction that is claimed to be obscene.

Among other things, the bill would create the offense of furnishing a harmful item to a minor, and require each county or municipal library to have a written policy to establish guidelines for the selection, removal and retention of physical materials that are available to the public. Under current state law, school libraries are required to have a written policy regarding challenged material. The amended bill would specify what the policy is required to include.

Sullivan said Friday that he plans to amend his Senate Bill 71, which aims to effectively eliminate affirmative action in state and local government in Arkansas.

He declined to publicly reveal his proposed amendment.

The bill cleared the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Jan. 31. At that time, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, suggested the bill sends a message that racism and sexism are over in Arkansas, but Sullivan disputed that and said he doesn't believe that to be the case.

Sullivan said he also plans to amend House Bill 1156 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, which would restrict which bathroom transgender people can use in public schools. The amendment would be related to restrictions that the bill would place on overnight school trips.

State Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, said Friday she is working on a proposed amendment to her House Bill 1399, which would require local jurisdictions to post certain notices online rather than printing them in local newspapers.

"I have been working with both sides to come to some sort of an agreement," and her aim is to benefit both sides, she said.

The bill would strike language from current law that requires municipalities and counties to publish notices related to delinquent taxes, elections, ordinances and financial statements in local newspapers. Under the bill, jurisdictions would instead have to post these notices on government sites.

The legislation mirrors similar bills and laws passed in other parts of the nation. Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have filed bills that would shift public notices from newspapers to government websites. Last year, Florida passed a law that permits government agencies to post legal notices on government websites rather than newspapers under certain conditions, according to Northwestern University's Local News Initiative.


Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, said Sanders has agreed to support his House Bill 1032 to increase the homestead property tax credit from $375 per parcel to $425 per parcel. The state Department of Finance and Administration projects the annual pricetag for the bill at about $34 million a year.

He said he plans to amend the bill for the homestead property tax credit to begin in 2024 and for Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, to be the Senate's sponsor.

"I should run it [this week]," in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Fite said.

Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning on Friday confirmed the governor supports the bill.

In the 2000 general election, voters approved Amendment 79 to the Arkansas Constitution to create the homestead property tax credit. In response, the Legislature enacted a half-cent sales tax, effective Jan. 1, 2001, and the revenue is credited to the property tax relief trust fund.

The Legislature established the initial homestead property tax credit at $300 per parcel before voting in 2007 to increase it to $350 and then voting in 2019 to increase it to $375. The 2019 law also allows the transfer of excess funds in the property tax relief trust fund to the state's now catastrophic reserve fund.


Last week, the Senate approved House Concurrent Resolution 1007, sponsored by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to extend the regular session to the close of business April 7 or at an earlier time agreed upon by the House and Senate.

Monday will be the 43rd day of the session.

The House and Senate already have passed a resolution coinciding with school break from March 16 until March 29.

Shepherd said Thursday that April 7 is a realistic date for the session to recess, even though legislators had yet to file bills that would implement priorities set by Sanders and top lawmakers in January such as an education overhaul and public safety overhauls.

"That's a really long time from a legislative standpoint," he said. "You take things a day at a time, that's what we're doing."

Arkansas' 94th General Assembly convened Jan. 9. The 60th day of the regular session will be March 9, and the 75th day of the regular session will be March 24.

April 7 would be the 89th day of the regular session.

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley, Cynthia Howell, and Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Education bill going Monday to Legislature


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