More public debate regarding Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' proposed omnibus education bill is needed before it goes to a vote before the House of Representatives, leaders representing four state advocacy groups said Monday.
Representatives of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Citizens First Congress, Arkansas Education Association and Disability Rights Arkansas voiced concerns about Senate Bill 294, also known as the Arkansas LEARNS Act, and its quick journey through the Legislature during a news conference at the Arkansas Education Association building in Little Rock.
"Combining all of these changes into one omnibus and rushing this legislation through so quickly makes it seem as though there's an effort to limit debate on perhaps the most sweeping overhaul of our state's education system in recent memory," said Olivia Gardner, education policy director with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
The 144-page bill was filed Feb. 20 and cleared the state Senate just four days later. The bill heads to the House Education Committee today for a public hearing and could pass the full House as early as Thursday. House Education Committee Chair Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said the committee will wait until Wednesday to take action.
If voted out of the House on Thursday, the bill would have to head back to the Senate for a concurring vote before it goes to the Republican governor for her signature.
"This is about accountability, transparency and collaboration," said Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association. "Why do we have to push a bill through so quickly that has taken, as we've been told, two years to develop? So you've had two years to develop something you want to push through with less than a week's time to the public."
All of the speakers on Monday said they agree with some parts of the bill and are pushing for it to be amended. Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas Citizens First Congress, said his group has a number of suggested amendments, including extending the bill's long list of mandates on public schools to private and charter schools.
"There are components of this legislation that I will simply never agree with, but I do think even with that there are improvements that we can make to make this more palatable for folks," Gardner said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, filed an amendment late Friday afternoon that will add back some due process protections for teachers after the bill repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, the state law that requires educators be given written notice before being fired.
Brooks' amendment would require school districts to issue a "notice of a recommendation for termination" for fired teachers and "an opportunity for a hearing before the public school district board of directors."
The amendment, which came at the request of Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, also includes language that requires a discussion of a "school safety assessment, to be done in a closed session."
Brooks told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday that he has no plans to amend the bill further.
When asked earlier whether Sanders was open to amending the bill further, Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Sanders and the bill's sponsors "have been open to amending the bill throughout the process."
"We took hundreds of edits based on feedback from legislators, teachers, administrators, and parents," Henning said in a statement Saturday. "We have been engaging legislators all week on improvements to the bill and yesterday the final amendment was filed."
Kopsky said the public has been misled.
"This bill is being sold as a public education bill about literacy, and that's not the way that we read the bill," he said. "We read the bill as actually not having very much to do with public education, other than dismantling an awful lot of it and privatizing it in the form of vouchers and a massive expansion of charter schools that we've not talked enough about."
Kopsky said he saw two components of the bill that focus on literacy, and he said both are partially funded.
"We think what this bill really is, is a school privatization bill," he said. "We should just call it that, and we should just peel out the parts around public education and run a separate 'improving public education' bill."
Kopsky also said the bill contains a provision that would "coerce, encourage, really push schools that are rated D and F into entering into contracts with for-profit companies or private charter operators."
He said that provision would affect more than 300 schools in the state that have a D or F rating, and that most of those schools are ranked so low because of poverty.
"The largest indicator of a student's performance in school, by far, is family income," Kopsky said.
He said overall the bill needs to focus on funding more evidence-based solutions and provide clear expectations about the long-term cost of reforms.
During the bill's hearing in the Senate Education Committee, the bill's sponsor, Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, defended the legislation against charges that it is an attack on public education, saying "nothing about this bill defunds public schools."
Instead, Davis pointed to financial data from the Department of Education showing $297 million in spending, with $150 million in new spending, that she said will go toward educating students.
Fleming, with the Arkansas Education Association, said SB294 would hurt students attending rural schools.
Even if a voucher covered their tuition, many of those students do not have transportation to schools other than the public school they are zoned to attend, she said, adding that those students would not benefit from the school choice that proponents of Arkansas LEARNS say it offers.
Tom Masseau, director of Disability Rights Arkansas, also expressed concerns about transportation. He said alternate transportation, even ride-share programs, would not be accessible for all.
Fleming pointed out the proposed bill did not benefit from educators' input, saying she contacted Sanders' campaign before Sanders was elected but has yet to meet with the governor.
Fleming also noted the bill's lack of written support and pay raises for other school employees, including classroom support staff, nurses, nutrition workers, social workers and bus drivers.
"Intent is all well and good, but if it's not written [in the bill] they don't have to be held accountable to it," she said.
All four speakers agreed the $50,000 starting salary for teachers that would be implemented if the bill becomes law would place a financial burden on rural and small schools as well.
Masseau said the proposed legislation does not include certain provisions for students with disabilities. More specifically, he said, it doesn't provide for the training of school resource officers in making threat assessments and responding to mental health crises.
"We agree, at Disability Rights Arkansas, that we need a strong education system to provide for all Arkansans as they leave high school to pursue their hopes and dreams," Masseau said. "However, in reviewing the LEARNS bill proposed by Gov. Sanders and Senator Davis last week, those opportunities are not provided to students with disabilities."
Gardner, with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said the bill fails to address early childhood education, too.
"My work focuses on early childhood education, and I believe this bill does not go far enough to address the crisis facing our state," she said. "There is no money in this bill for increasing access and affordability for childhood education."