The Arkansas Senate approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education overhaul Thursday, clearing the way for the House to take up the bill next week.
After about 90 minutes of debate, the GOP-controlled Senate voted 25-7 to approve Senate Bill 294, sending it to the House Education Committee next week.
Th 144-page omnibus education bill, also called the LEARNS Act, would create a program to give students state dollars to attend a private or home school. It also calls for a $14,000 increase in the starting salary for teachers, which would propel minimum salaries for educators in Arkansas to among the highest in the nation.
The bill would increase the minimum starting salary for teachers to $50,000 a year and create a voucher program that will allot 90% of foundation funding for students to attend a private or home school. The bill also includes $2,000 raises for teachers making above the minimum and the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance.
Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said the House Education Committee will likely take up the bill at its meeting Tuesday.
EARLIER: Arkansas Senate panel approves education bill
The Arkansas Senate Education Committee approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul bill Wednesday in the first step toward the bill's passage.
People packed the Legislature's largest committee room on the Capitol grounds to weigh in and listen as lawmakers, parents, activists and teachers debated Senate Bill 294 that seeks to restructure education in the state. The committee approved the bill through a voice vote, and it is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor today.
SB294, also called the LEARNS Act, is Sanders' long-awaited education overhaul bill that would create a program for students to attend a private or home school with public dollars and would raise the starting teacher salary by $14,000 in an effort to help alleviate recruiting and retainment issues at the state's schools.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, called it the "single largest investment in public schools that Arkansas has ever seen." Davis said during Wednesday's meeting that she wanted to correct "the misinformation" about the bill, meaning concerns about how the voucher program, also known as Educational Freedom Accounts, would divert critical funding from public schools.
"Nothing about this bill defunds public schools," Davis said. "This is the largest investment in public schools in Arkansas' history. ... We are committed to public schools, we want them to thrive. We are not trying to consolidate, regardless of what people are saying. Nothing about this is in opposition to our public schools."
The LEARNS Act would be funded through general revenue and cost $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that being new funds, according to an estimate from the Arkansas Department of Education. In the second year, as more students become eligible for the state's school voucher program, the cost would increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.
The bill's new $50,000 starting pay for teachers, which Sanders estimated would bring 15,249 teachers' salaries to the minimum, and the $2,000 raises would cost the state $180 million each year, according to the Department of Education's analysis.
The bill also would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act to make it easier for schools to fire teachers for poor performance, something many educators took issue with.
While the bill passed committee Wednesday, it will likely be amended once it moves to the House. Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, offered a number of proposed fixes to the bill, including adding some employment protections for teachers and a fiscal analysis of how the bill will impact teacher pensions among other changes.
Hammer suggested an amendment to give teachers a "layer of protection" from a principal or superintendent with a "good ol' boy mentality."
Hammer voted the bill out of committee Wednesday, but on the promise from Davis that it would be amended on the House end, calling it an opportunity to "build trust" between the Senate, the House and the governor.
Students enrolled in the state's school choice program would receive 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 program begins in the 2023-2024 school year and would be phased in over three years. Students who attend an F-rated school; a school "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 will be 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, students attending a D-rated schools or have a parent who is a military veteran or a first-responder will be eligible for Educational Freedom Accounts. 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.
The Educational Freedom Accounts would cost $46.7 million in the first year, with the state anticipating 7,000 students will enroll in the program in its first year. The cost increases to $97.5 million in the second year with an estimated 14,000 students enrolled in the program. Robert Breck of the Senate budget office said the third year of the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million.
The bill also has provisions requiring high schools to adopt a career-oriented diploma track for students who seek to learn a trade, funding for literacy coaches and grants for tutors to assist students to boost their reading scores. That would cost the state $6.2 million each year.
The bill 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."
Jacob Oliva, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education, followed Davis' remarks and said the state's current "one-size fits approach to all students in determining their path for their future we know is archaic."
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, quizzed Davis and Oliva about the bill's Critical Race Theory ban, asking the education secretary "When you say that it should not be taught to anyone, what you're talking about?" Chesterfield said she wanted guarantees teachers who taught topics like slavery, racism, sexism, Jim Crow and discrimination against Native Americans were "not going to lose our job."
"Not only should we teach those topics that are factual history, it should be required," Oliva responded. "And if those topics aren't reflected in our standards, that is an opportunity for us as a state agency to ensure that every child is taught those topics when it's in the appropriate course."
CONCERNS ABOUT THE BILL
For more than 3½ hours, the Senate Education Committee heard testimony from the public, mostly from critics of Sanders' education package.
Some teachers said the bill's voucher program would divert much-needed funding from public schools and that the new minimum salary, while needed, would upend the state's complicated pay scale for teachers. Many also took issue with the repeal of employment protections for teachers.
"Giving public tax money to private institutions is not OK," said Tonya Williams, a special education teacher from south Arkansas. "Repealing the [Teacher Fair Dismissal Act] is not OK. Eliminating the salary schedule is not OK."
Many of the bill's opponents said there were things in the bill they could support, including its provisions for increasing pay for teachers, literacy coaches, tutors, school safety and mental health.
Devin Tubbs, a science teacher in the Two Rivers School District at Ola in rural Yell County, spoke against the bill, echoing calls from many for the bill to be broken into several pieces of legislation.
"This school choice program will not benefit our kids that are most at risk. It will benefit the affluent and those that can afford the life changes that come with going and traveling to a private school," Tubbs said. "So we stand here today and we ask you to make this bill separate issues. Don't let it pass through as it is today.
"[Let the bill be] broken into separate issues that have to be evaluated separately so that each one can be given the attention it deserves, because all of it is much too important to put our most-average students in the cross-hairs."
Tubbs' comments were greeted by loud applause and cheers from the gallery, which drew an admonishment from Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock.
"If I hear one more outburst, you will have to leave," English told the gallery. "That is not acceptable. Everybody knew that when we came in here, so please behave yourselves."
Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, echoed calls for the legislation to be split into multiple bills, saying he could support 60% to 70% of the bill.
"As I've told a lot of people, if the last 30% of the cheeseburger is still poison, it's still a pretty lousy cheeseburger," Leding said.
Many in attendance also took issue with the lack of time they were given to read the 144-page bill. Lawmakers filed the bill early Monday evening, and 40 hours later the Senate held its first hearing on it with many complaining it wasn't enough time to read the proposed legislation in depth.
"The amount of time I've had to read this, if I did that to my students in the classroom, I'd be called on the carpet quickly," said Dustin Parson, a teacher from Bauxite.
Chesterfield opened the discussion and noted that Senate Democrats weren't included in crafting the bill. She praised Sanders for asking for her input but said the same could not be said about Republican lawmakers.
"I was taken aback by the lack of inclusion of Democratic members of this body," Chesterfield said. "Members who were not even on this committee received advance copies of this bill on Friday, and we received ours Monday afternoon."
SUPPORT FOR THE BILL
The bill drew praise from some parents, particularly those who have children with disabilities and felt that many private schools and home school co-ops were better equipped to teach students with special needs.
While critics said the bill would divert state dollars away from public schools, supporters offered a different view, one of a public school system that was not able to provide the personal education that only small private schools can offer.
"I don't feel that teachers in public schools are equipped to handle autistic children," said Jennifer Hood, who has a son with autism. "They don't have the training that they need, and I'm very grateful to have that choice."
Misty Mitchell, a parent from northeast Arkansas, said her local public school was unable accommodate her son's needs, saying he was anxious while attending public school.
"Then I found a home school co-op that helped him," Mitchell said. "Before he went in, he was at grade level. Afterwards, now he is above his grade level and he thrives and he has social interactions. And that is based off of being able to have that option to be in a home school setting."
CJ and Samantha Jacoby, a husband and wife who are teachers and coaches in Sheridan, spoke in favor of the bill's teacher pay raises.
The current minimum salary for teachers is $36,000 a year, and the proposed $50,000 starting salary 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 teachers union in the country.
"We have been committed to impacting student lives for a really long time because we love it," Samantha Jacoby said. "We love the kids. We're not in it to make a lot of money. The teacher salaries have made us, several times recently, rethink our career."
She noted the couple welcomed a baby boy last year who is now 10 months old.
"The teacher salary increase would greatly affect us in helping us potentially not live paycheck to paycheck," said Samantha Jacoby, adding that she recently interviewed for a job outside of education "simply because I didn't know what else to do."
"I believe that I'm supposed to be teaching and coaching in [student] lives to help them become great people, but I do know that teachers are leaving the career in herds for a lot of different reasons," she said. "I do know that all the stress and the work that teachers put in day in and day out, we do not feel like is being adequately compensated. And I do feel like the part of the bill that addresses that will help a lot of families, including mine."
Information for this article was contributed by Daniel McFadin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.