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Sanders’ education bill goes before Arkansas Senate committee on Wednesday

Legislation heads to initial hearing today before senators’ committee by Neal Earley | February 22, 2023 at 8:08 a.m.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (center) and Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva (right) answer questions about the education bill following Sanders speech to homeschoolers on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday urged supporters to lobby lawmakers to back her education overhaul bill.

Speaking at an event for home school parents and students at the Capitol, Sanders said her proposed LEARNS Act "will go a long way to assisting Arkansas families that decide to home school their kids."

[UPDATE: State Senate panel takes up Sanders' education bill before  crowd »

Lawmakers filed Sanders' bill Monday, unveiling specifics of a long-awaited proposal that includes vouchers for students to attend private or home school and increase the state's minimum teacher salary to $50,000 a year.

"I always believed that parents know what's best for their kids, especially when it comes to education," the Republican governor said. "Deciding to teach your kids yourself is no small commitment, and Arkansas should help parents when they make the choice to do so."

[WATCH LIVE: Senate Education Committee meeting »]

The Senate Education Committee will take up the LEARNS Act today for the bill's first hearing. Anticipating a large crowd of attendees wanting to testify on the bill, the committee will meet at 9 a.m. inside the Multi-Agency Complex.

With 26 out of 35 senators sponsoring the bill, including every Republican on the Senate Education Committee, the bill has enough support to easily pass the Senate.

Senate Bill 294, sponsored by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, would create a phased-in voucher program that will eventually be available to any student eligible to be enrolled in a public school.

The vouchers, dubbed Education Freedom Accounts, would give students 90% of the statewide foundation funding from the prior school year. The foundation funding amount per student for the 2022-2023 school year is $7,413.

Parents and students gathered for "Home School Day" at the Capitol on Tuesday, an event organized by the Family Council, a conservative Christian group. Sanders told the crowd to lobby lawmakers to support the bill. Sanders and the House later approved a proclamation recognizing home­schooling in Arkansas.

"For those students who have been trapped in failing schools just because they live in the wrong zip code, this will be a game-changer," Sanders said. "And for those parents who want to home school their kids but can't afford it, the Education Freedom Account Program will finally allow them to give their children the tailored homeschooling that they need and frankly that they deserve."

Students in F-rated schools enrolled in kindergarten, who were or are in a foster care program, have a disability or an active duty military parent will be eligible to receive the school voucher for the 2023-2024 school year.

For the 2024-2025 school year, the voucher program will expand to students attending a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran or children of first responders. 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.

Sanders' education bill also includes a $14,000 increase in the minimum pay for teachers, upping the starting salary to $50,000 a year. Teachers who already make more than $50,000 will receive a $2,000 raise. The bill also would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act to make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance.

The LEARNS Act includes funding for literacy coaches to help boost reading levels at D- or F-rated schools, and calls for $500 grants for students to hire tutors to help boost their reading levels.

The bill includes language mirroring Sanders' executive order that prohibits Critical Race Theory in education, calling for the Department of Education to review materials, policies or rules "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."

The bill also bars teachers from providing classroom instruction on sexually explicit materials, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, gender identity or sexual orientation before the fifth grade.

If the Senate Education Committee approves the bill today, it could go to a vote by the full Senate as early as Thursday.

House Education Committee Chair Brian Evans said if the LEARNS Act is approved by the Senate this week, the House will likely take it up in committee Tuesday. Fifty-four of the 100 House members are co-sponsoring the bill, an indication of its broad support.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she is worried about how quickly Republican lawmakers plan to move Sanders' education bill. She noted a hearing was scheduled only 40 hours after the 144-page bill was filed late Monday afternoon.

"We really think that this is unjust to run this [today]," McCullough said, "a bill that size that does that much, that changes the face of education so much in our state."

There is bipartisan opposition to Sanders' education plan, with Republican Rep. Jim Wooten of Beebe calling the LEARNS Act "a knee-jerk reaction to an emotional issue."

Wooten said the bill's provision that would allow parents to use public funds to attend private school amounts to an attack on public education. Wooten estimates it could pull hundreds of millions of dollars out of public schools.

"I haven't seen so much disdain, dislike and outright criticism of public education," Wooten said.

Despite supporting Sanders "financially and otherwise," Wooten said he could not back the education bill as it pulls funding from public schools -- which must take all students -- to a private school that may have a selective admissions process.

"The constitution of this state says it's the state's responsibility to educate, [to] produce equitable education for the child," Wooten said. "It doesn't say a word about the private schools; it says it is the state's responsibility."

Wooten presented a bill last week in the House Education Committee that he said would provide more oversight of private schools that accept public funds.

House Bill 1204 would have required private schools that accept public funds to administer the same tests public schools use to give parents an "apples to apples" comparison. The bill also would have barred private schools from denying admission to any student who plans to use state funds to help cover the cost of attendance.

The House Education Committee voted down the bill on a 4-13 vote.

McCullough also questioned the LEARNS Act costs, which Davis said would be $300 million, including $150 million in new spending. McCullough said the estimated $300 million for the LEARNS Act is less than the estimate for the Democrats' teacher pay raise bill, the RAISE Act, which also would have increased the minimum salary to $50,000 a year and included funding for raises for classified staff.

"How is this less than that, this huge omnibus bill with all the things that go into it?" McCullough said.

Legislative staff had not completed the mandated fiscal impact statement by the deadline for publication of this story.

Print Headline: Sanders to crowd: Lobby lawmakers for education bill


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