Lawmakers unveiled plans for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul in a bill filed late Monday afternoon, which includes a $14,000 increase in the starting salary for teachers and vouchers for every student eligible to enroll in a public school.
In a 144-page bill, the Republican governor calls for a restructure of the state's education system that also includes a repeal of a state law to make it easier for schools to fire teachers, vouchers for students to attend the public, private or home school of their choice, an increased focus on job-training in high schools and more stringent literacy standards for elementary students.
Senate Bill 294, dubbed the "The LEARNS Act," is sponsored by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock.
Sanders has repeatedly called education her top priority, presenting a vision for overhauling schools that she called Arkansas LEARNS, which includes a focus on literacy, empowering parents, accountability for teachers, career readiness for students, high-speed internet access and improved security at schools.
Starting salaries for teachers would increase from $36,000 to $50,000 a year, and each teacher already making above the new minimum will receive a $2,000 raise. The bill also calls for the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which would make it easier to fire teachers for poor performance.
"Arkansas is making history today with the introduction of my signature Arkansas LEARNS legislation -- the biggest, most far-reaching, conservative education reform in America, and exactly what our state needs to take our education system to the top," Sanders said in a news release. "Once Arkansas LEARNS passes, minimum teacher pay will go from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation, parents will be empowered to choose whatever school is best for their family, and our students will finally be back to learning the basics of reading, writing, science, math, and history and put on a pathway to success."
The proposed $50,000 starting salary for teachers would put Arkansas behind only Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia for starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the country. 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 relatively low salaries for teachers when compared with other states. Arkansas ranks 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.
Full-time school employees also would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, the cost of which is to be split by the state and the school district. The bill would increase student loan debt forgiveness from $3,000 to $6,000 for teachers who say they will stay in Arkansas to teach. The bill also would set up a teacher academy where the state would help pay a prospective student's tuition in exchange for the student pledging to teach in an designated public school in Arkansas.
The bill also creates the "Merit Teacher Incentive Fund Program" that will offer up to $10,000 bonuses for a teacher who "demonstrates outstanding growth in student performance," as a way of rewarding good teachers.
The bill would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers, something Sanders has hinted to in saying the state will hold teachers accountable. Brooks 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."
"Teachers deserve not just better compensation, but a work environment in which they know they're valued and appreciated," said Laurie Lee, chairman of The Reform Alliance, in a news release. "Benefits like paid maternity leave and career incentives help send the message that we want to attract the best and brightest professionals to Arkansas to take on this important task of making sure our children get the best education they can."
The debate over teacher pay became an issue during the August special session. In late July, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson called lawmakers back to Little Rock to accelerate an income tax cut after state finance officials reported a $1.6 billion budget surplus. Hutchinson, a Republican, considered asking lawmakers to take up increased pay for teachers but ultimately left it off the special session's agenda because of a lack of support from most Republican legislators.
Hutchinson's plan was to raise starting salaries for educators to $46,000. Senate and House committees later recommended $4,000 raises for all teachers, including increasing the minimum salary to $40,000 as part of a biennial of education in the state.
Last month, Democrats attempted to preempt Sanders' education bill by releasing their own proposal for a teacher pay raise that included a $50,000 minimum starting salary, and a $10,000 raise for every public school teacher. The Democrats also recommended increasing the foundation funding so school districts could increase the wages for classified staff from $11 an hour to $15.
The bill also includes a voucher program where each student will be able to use 90% of the statewide foundation funding from the prior school year to attend a private or home school of their choice. The foundation funding amount per student for the 2022-2023 school year is $7,413.
The voucher program will be phased in over three years beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, with students who attend an F-rated school; are "in need of Level 5-Intensive support"; have a disability; are homeless; are or were in foster care; or a child of an active-duty military parent being given first priority for vouchers. Students who enroll in kindergarten for the 2023-2024 school year also will be eligible in the first year.
For the 2024-2025 school year, the voucher program will expand to students attending a D-rated school; have a parent who is a military veteran or first-responder. By the 2025-2026 school year, every student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school.
For a private school to be eligible to receive vouchers, it must be accredited by the state Board of Education or the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accreditation Association. Private schools in the program also will be required to have students take a state-approved assessment that measures math and literacy.
The bill notably has 24 Senate co-sponsors and 54 co-sponsors in the House, constituting a majority in both chambers, and shows its wide support from the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Davis, the bill's lead Senate sponsor, said she plans to present the bill to the Senate Education Committee at its next meeting Wednesday.
"We wanted to make sure everything was as right as it could be before we filed, but it is relieving to finally have it filed," Davis said Monday.
The bill will cost the state about $300 million, including $150 million in new money in the first year, and "a little bit more [in] the second year, but we have got provisions within the bill to make sure we stay within our means," Davis said.
She said she is hopeful the Senate will vote to approve this week, which could happen Thursday, but the speed of the bill's passage could meet resistance from Democrats and a few Republicans who may object to the bill's school choice components.
"They had an entire special session devoted to education during that time, and we basically have one business day to process this bill before it's run in committee, and that's not sufficient time," said Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock.
The bill also would establish new standards for literacy, something Sanders has pledged would be a renewed emphasis in her education reform package.
Under the bill teachers at schools rated D or F will have access to literacy coaches to help boost reading scores. Students struggling to read at grade level also will be eligible to receive a $500 grant to hire a literacy tutor.
Students who do not meet the state Department of Education's reading standards by the third grade won't be permitted to move on to the fourth grade, unless granted an exemption, according to the bill.
The bill also will require 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."
Sanders has toured schools in Conway and Lonoke County that provide technical education for high school students focusing on preparing them for a specific career in sought-after fields such as agriculture or manufacturing.
The bill also asks the Department of Education to review any materials, policies or rules that promote the teaching of "Critical Race Theory," or other similar "indoctrination," which is defined by the bill as topics "that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual's color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law."
Schools also would have to require "a school safety expert review and advise on architectural plans for a public school facility before the new construction of the public school facility" and to develop a plan "to increase the presence of uniformed law enforcement on all public school campuses."