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Sanders’ education bill clears Arkansas Senate, heads to House

Some lawmakers see bill as being rushed by Neal Earley | February 24, 2023 at 9:05 a.m.
“We will no longer be defenders of the status quo” in state education, Sen. Breanne Davis said Thursday before the Senate vote. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

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, Senate members voted 25-7 to approve Senate Bill 294, sending it to the House Education Committee next week. Sanders has touted the package as a much-needed improvement to education in the state, which has long lagged behind the nation in key benchmarks such as literacy.

"We will no longer be defenders of the status quo," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said Thursday while presenting the bill on the Senate floor. "We have been failing our kids for far too long. The status quo means that only 35% of our third graders across Arkansas can read at grade level. Status quo is continuing to let a child's zip code determine the type of education they receive."

While the Republican-controlled Senate approval was expected, lawmakers from both parties spoke up against what they perceived has been a rushed process to move the bill through the chamber. The 144-page omnibus education bill, also called the LEARNS Act, was introduced early Monday evening with the Senate Education Committee holding a public hearing 40 hours later on Wednesday morning.

Much of Thursday's debate centered not just on the bill's contents, but around process. Republican Jimmy Hickey Jr. of Texarkana said he had read only about 40 pages of the bill, saying, "When I say I read a bill, I don't just read a bill. I sit and study a bill."

"Even if you agreed with every policy decision that's within this, you need to hold it up," said Hickey, the lone Republican to vote against the bill. "I don't care if it's for five days, or whatever, just so that we can get the amendment put on it in the Senate and then send it down to the House."

Republican Sens. Bryan King of Green Forrest and Alan Clark of Lonsdale also said they felt the bill process was rushed. Clark voted for the bill, while King voted present.

During the Senate Education Committee hearing Wednesday, Davis promised fellow Republican Kim Hammer of Benton the bill would be amended when it moves to the House. Hammer, who voted for the bill, offered a list of suggested amendments, including adding back in some labor protections for teachers and a fiscal analysis of how the bill will impact teacher pensions among other changes.

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said the House Education Committee will likely take up the bill at its meeting Tuesday, where it likely will be amended.

"There are many people that want to vote for this that your process has put in a situation," said Sen. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna. "The enormity of this bill, the complexity of this bill, the many questions that it [yields] is what's a large part of the problem."

Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, defended the bill's procedure, saying "I don't know the normal legislative process. I've been here seven weeks."

"We are talking about rushing this through, we're years behind," Dees said. "It should have been done before I got here. It should have been done years ago."

The bill would increase the minimum starting salary for teachers to $50,000 a year, which would put the state 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.

The bill also would create a voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, that will allocate 90% of foundation funding for students to attend a private or home school. The bill 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.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said the bill comes at a "tremendous cost," but one that is ultimately worth it for the state.

"If we are wanting to take the reins in making sure that kids are reading the way that they should, this bill puts the dollars out there to do that," said Dismang, a Republican from Beebe.

The LEARNS Act would be funded through general revenue and would 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, the total cost would increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.

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.

Dismang said the state will fund the education bill through baseline state funding education and increased funding through the Revenue Stabilization Act, a law that requires the General Assembly to prioritize its spending plans funded mostly through the state's income and property tax revenue.

Some of the bill's smaller spending provisions, such as the $6.2 million for literacy coaches, will be funded through the one-time funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Dismang said.

"I think there is a reasonable attempt to make sure that everything we're doing can be funded through ongoing revenue, not one-time funds. That's the goal," Dismang said.

Sanders has made education the top priority early in her tenure, saying her bill would disrupt a state of affairs that has failed parents and students alike.

"Arkansas is one step closer to unleashing the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation with the Arkansas Senate's passage of my signature Arkansas LEARNS bill today," Sanders said in a statement. "It will empower parents to choose the best school for their kid, improve childhood literacy, increase teacher pay to one of the highest in the nation, and prepare kids to graduate into high-paying jobs with the skills and training they need to be successful."

Democratic senators, all of whom voted against the bill, said there were some things in Sanders' education package they supported, including increased pay for teachers, pre-kindergarten programs, funding to help pay for maternity leave and mental health training for staff.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said there are a "number of things in this bill I wholeheartedly support," but he said he could not support the bills for its repeal of "due process" labor protections for teachers and the voucher programs that don't address poverty, which is the root of the problem in education in the state.

While Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she could back increasing the minimum salary for teachers to $50,000 a year, she does not support the bill's elimination of the state's complex salary schedule, which rewards teachers for experience and education level.

"There is no salary schedule. There is no recognition that toiling in the field makes a difference," Chesterfield said.

Chesterfield said she "did not go into reading this bill with a negative attitude," saying she had a positive meeting with Sanders about the governor's education proposals but ultimately could not support the bill.

"Ladies and gentlemen, when we give public dollars to private schools there's a problem," Chesterfield said. "We don't have the same ability to monitor those schools, and we were not reassured that they will be held to the same standard [as public schools]."

  photo  Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, speaks against SB294 during the Senate session Thursday. All the Democrats in the Senate and one Republican voted against the bill. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Print Headline: Sanders education plan clears Senate


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