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Governor’s education bill stirs concern in Northwest Arkansas’ first public forums on the proposal

State lawmakers, residents question promises in LEARNS Act by Doug Thompson, Tom Sissom | February 27, 2023 at 12:09 p.m.
Rogers School District Superintendent Jeff Perry (second from right) addresses the Rogers School Board during its meeting at Rogers in this July 19, 2022 file photo. Perry said Friday, Feb. 24, 2023 that the proposed Arkansas LEARNS Act is "probably the most comprehensive education reform package I've ever seen in my life," telling lawmakers at a forum that "we are supportive of the vast majority of this bill." (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Dave Perozek)

Even the supporters of the governor's education bill asked questions and raised concerns Friday at forums in Northwest Arkansas.

The Rogers-Lowell and Fayetteville chambers of commerce on Friday afternoon held their first forums between legislators and the public since the 144-page bill dropped this week. In the evening, the Arkansas Democratic Rural Caucus had a similar meeting at the Farmington Senior Center.

"This bill is so broad and so much is in it," Suzanne Spivey, a member of the Rogers School Board, at the Rogers meeting. "Much of it is so wonderful, but I do have some concerns." Spivey was one of at least 30 attending a Conversations With Your Legislators event hosted by the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce in the chamber's conference room.

"Vouchers, how is that going to work?" Spivey said. "Who's going to monitor them? Also, I know a lot of parents who are home school who do an excellent job, but who is going to monitor the new ones?"

Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, and other lawmakers at the Rogers forum assured Spivey and others that their questions would be addressed. A six-page amendment to the bill was filed in the House earlier on Friday, Dotson said.

The governor unveiled the LEARNS Act proposal Monday. The measure passed the Senate on Thursday and is pending in the House. The bill would increase the minimum starting salary for teachers to $50,000 a year and create a voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, that would allocate 90% of state per-student taxpayer funds for students to attend a private or home school. The bill would also repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance.

Many of the provisions such as the educational freedom accounts will be phased in, Dotson said. Also attending the Rogers event were Republican Reps. Brit McKenzie of Rogers, Rebecca Burkes of Springdale, Kendon Underwood of Cave Springs and Mindy McAlindon of Bentonville.

Of the Friday events, the one in Farmington had the highest attendance, as well as the most open criticism of the education proposal.

Kevin Shinn, Huntsville fire chief and a retired educator who worked in Huntsville schools for about 36 years, said the bill provides for state funding to raise teachers' pay up to $50,000 a year for two years. After that, he said, rural school districts will be left to fend for themselves.

"The salary money is the carrot that's gotten everyone's attention," Shinn said. "But rural schools do not have the tax base to pick up the slack when the state steps down."

Shinn said smaller, mostly rural school districts will have to make cuts.

"They'll start cutting the athletic programs, cutting the arts programs, cutting the music programs," he said.

Farmington forum panelist Jess Piper said she lived in Arkansas and attended Arkansas schools and universities before moving to Missouri. Missouri and other states including Arizona, Iowa and Michigan have already adopted legislation similar to what is now being considered in Arkansas. "It hasn't worked in any of those places," Piper said. Piper said Missouri teachers were promised raises, but the promises were not kept.

"They lied," she said. "It was all smoke and mirrors."

Jim Lewis of Lincoln attended the forum and said the loss of tax money when students leave a district, as allowed in the bill, will force smaller districts to consolidate. A former superintendent of the Lincoln School District, Lewis said smaller districts can't afford the loss of funding.

"If you had 40 students transfer out of the Lincoln School District, that would cost the district about $260,000," Lewis said. "That may not seem like a lot to a city district, but it's a tremendous amount to a small district to have to make up. You still have to meet state standards for the number of teachers and the teacher-student ratio. You may have to cut programs and positions. You could cut things like the FFA [Future Farmers of America] program, cut coaching positions, cut transportation. It will make a large impact on the smaller schools."

Gwen Faulkenberry attended the Farmington forum and is executive director of Arkansas Strong, a lobbying group against the bill. Faulkenberry said Arkansas Strong is trying to mobilize people to rally on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday morning, when the LEARNS Act is scheduled for a hearing in the House Education Committee.

"I'd say 75% to 90% of the discussion was about the LEARNS Act" at the Fayetteville chamber event, said Wayne Mays, senior policy for the Fayetteville chamber and organizer of its forum.

"Several of the citizens there questioned the haste," Mays said. "They said they haven't had time to talk with legislators about it."

Rep. Steve Unger, R-Springdale, also attended the Fayetteville event. He confirmed that much of the discussion was about the LEARNS Act and that even supporters had concerns. "The question we have to ask ourselves is, 'Is the status quo working?'" Unger said. "When you look at our rankings, the answer is clearly no."

"We do not produce any perfect documents in that building," Unger said of the state Capitol. The LEARNS Act is a good bill but will not get everything right on the first pass, he said. Also, much of the bill will still be implemented by state policy and by district school boards in application, he said.

Even the best bill needs sound implementation to succeed, Rogers School District Superintendent Jeff Perry told lawmakers at the Rogers forum. The LEARNS Act would be a lot to digest in the short amount of time it would take to implement, he said. Schools are three months from making their plans, schedules and pay schedules for the next school year, he said.

"This is probably the most comprehensive education reform package I've ever seen in my life," Perry told lawmakers at the Rogers meeting. "We are supportive of the vast majority of this bill. Our biggest comment would be to let us help you make this bill a success," he said. Constituents and school districts need more of a partnership and more information, he added.

Rogers resident Laura Rowland asked about a provision in the bill requiring students to commit to at least 75 hours of volunteer time to qualify for graduation. "I have a friend in Warren [Bradley County] where there aren't places to volunteer" for community service. And even in places with more opportunity, she said, this requirement could lead to the exploitation of youths as cheap labor.

The education bill:


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