Sanders’ education overhaul seen as headed toward passage as some call for tweaks

Bill’s fans, foes unsure what will pass amid tug-of-war

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, makes a motion to re-refer HB1173 during the House session Wednesday at the state Capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Lawmakers from both parties agree that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul package is likely to pass. But what exactly the bill looks like when it gets to her desk is still something those inside the Capitol are debating.

The LEARNS Act passed the Senate on Thursday with some lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, arguing it is in need of amending. Late Friday afternoon, Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, the bill's House sponsor, filed a six-page amendment to address some concerns lawmakers found as they read through the package.

The Senate's passage of the bill, which calls for vouchers for students to attend private or home schools and a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers, came with the promise that it will be amended after it moves to the House. The details are still being ironed out, as legislators behind the scenes comb through the 144-page bill and offer their own ideas for amendments.

"The Governor and the bill sponsors have been open to amending the bill throughout the process including the months of drafting that took place before the bill was filed," said Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for the governor, in a statement. "We took hundreds of edits based on feedback from legislators, teachers, administrators, and parents. We have been engaging legislators all week on improvements to the bill and yesterday the final amendment was filed."

Brooks' amendment seeks to address some concerns lawmakers had as the bill made its way through the Senate last week. The amendment includes more privacy protections for school safety plans that lawmakers want to be confidential, as well as technical corrections. While the bill would repeal the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act, Brooks' amendments would add language to give teachers "an opportunity for a hearing" before the school board before they can be fired.

The House Education Committee will hear testimony on the bill Tuesday in what could be an all-day hearing beginning at 9 a.m. in the Multi-Agency Complex, next to the Capitol building. House Education Committee Chair Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said committee members won't debate or take action on the bill until Wednesday after the House adjourns, allowing them a day to think it over before a vote.

"It's just my belief that we need to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be heard and to [allow] our members to listen to all of that testimony and just have time to think it through," Evans said. "It's a very important vote and we want to make sure all voices are heard."

If voted out of committee Wednesday, the bill will likely head to the House floor Thursday for a vote, Evans said. If the House approves the bill, it will need to head back to the Senate for a concurring vote before heading to the governor's desk for her signature.

SB294, calls for a phased-in voucher program where students would receive 90% of per student foundation funding, which was $7,413 for the 2022-2023 school year. The starting teacher salary would also be raised $50,000 a year, with teachers already making above the new minimum receiving $2,000 raises.

Evans said he does not anticipate more amendments to the bill being filed. However, House members are likely to offer up their own ideas for fixes during the committee's debate on Wednesday.

"I'm still trying to get as much input as I can to make sure that we can get some amendments made to fix some of the technical pieces of the bill," said Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said Democrats had sent Brooks an initial batch of proposed changes to the bill by Friday afternoon. The suggested revisions dealt primarily with sections of the bill on raises, which she said would upend the complex teacher salary schedules that reward teachers for experience and education. McCullough also took issue with the bill's repeal of the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

Provisions of the bill concerning vouchers were "one of the hardest things" in the measure to accept, she said.

"The bill sponsor promised to be collaborative and work with people on amendments," she said. "Hopefully that there is an amendment process and hopefully there will be some good changes made."

Brooks did not respond to requests to comment or a question as to whether he was open to adding further amendments.

Freshman Rep. Joey Carr, R-Blytheville, said he supported academic policies in the bill including literacy screenings for lower grade levels and using support staff to aid students. Carr, who has served 12 years as a public elementary school administrator, said he had used similar initiatives to help students at his school.

In regards to vouchers, Carr said, "My opinion is, wherever public funds go I just expect academic and financial accountability. I can see evidence of that in the bill."

He pointed to a section that would require private schools that receive voucher payments to require students to take an annual assessment approved by the state Board of Education.

Some lawmakers have felt the bill's process has been rushed, as the Senate Education Committee held its hearing Wednesday just 40 hours after lawmakers filed the bill. After about 90 minutes of debate Thursday, the Senate voted 25-7 with even some of the bill's supporters saying lawmakers have moved too quickly.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said of the process, "It's definitely been rushed."

"I agree with them they should have had a little longer time [to read the bill]," Cozart said. "I know they are trying to push this through. The longer you give people to fester on it, the more that will come [out] against it."

On the bill's substance, Cozart said he understands criticism of the bill's voucher program, but he said the state's poor rating in public education necessitates major reforms.

"We have to move the needle, and we haven't moved the needle in Arkansas in education in a long, long time," he said.

Despite objections from Democrats and some Republicans, most agree the bill is likely to pass with a majority of legislators in the House and Senate counting themselves as co-sponsors.

"Bottom line is it's going to pass," said Rep. Steve Magie, D-Conway. "Unless all the teachers skip school and everyone shows up and bends their legislator's ear, I don't know that this is something we can stop."

Since the bill was filed, Magie said he'd received "500 emails" in opposition to the measure, and he noted he intended to vote against the package.

While Magie said there were elements he likes, he objects to how the bill would limit teacher protection against dismissal. He also opposes the voucher program, which he described as "fiscally irresponsible."

When running for his sixth term last year, Magie built his campaign around opposition to vouchers. While he noted there may be unique situations where vouchers could help students find programs that better fit their needs at private schools, he said opening up the program to tens of thousands of Arkansas students was not a sound use of taxpayer dollars.

While Magie supports raising minimum teacher pay to $50,000 a year, he said the bill should provide more substantial raises to veteran educators.

He also questioned why the bill couldn't be divided up into smaller pieces of legislation.

"Do we need a 144-page omnibus bill? We're not in Washington, D.C," he said. "This is Arkansas."

Freshman Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers, applauded the bill on Friday, calling it a "bold reform" that would benefit communities and give teachers long-awaited pay raises.

McKenzie, who sits on the House Education Committee, said he did not intend to propose any amendments to the bill. He noted that there was "a lot of great dialog" concerning clarifications to the language during a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Since the bill was filed, McKenzie said he'd heard from people both inside and outside of his district who expressed "a mixed bag" of opinions on it.

While he understands people want time to digest the bill, McKenzie said there was nothing unusual about the speed at which the measure had progressed through the Senate.

"When people don't like the idea, they attack the process," he said. "There's no strategic obfuscation going on."

Rep. Jim Wooten of Beebe is one of few Republicans who has taken a strong stance against the package, taking issue with the proposed voucher program that he said will create a "system of have and have nots" by diverting potentially hundreds of millions of dollars away from public education in coming years.

Wooten noted he had received "about 100 or more emails" from teachers urging him to oppose the measure. The $2,000 pay raises for most teachers are "not worth what we have to give up," he said.

"I'm in a no-win situation," he said.

  photo  From left, Arkansas state Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock; House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock; and Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, are shown in these undated file photos. (Left, courtesy photo; center, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)