Arkansas legislative leaders eager to get look at Sanders’ education reform rollout

Package rollout not yet set

FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

After taking four days off, Arkansas' 94th General Assembly will reconvene Tuesday as work continues on an education overhaul, criminal justice overhaul and income tax cut measures.

State law provides that out of respect to Martin Luther King Jr. and in observation of his birthday, neither the House nor Senate shall convene in session nor shall any of their committees meet on the third Monday in January, which is today.

State lawmakers kicked off the regular session last Monday, and after she was sworn in on Tuesday, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders urged the Legislature to think bigger and bolder and to do better than Arkansas has ever done before.

The Republican governor subsequently described herself as "a bold conservative reformer" and pledged to sign executive orders aimed at freezing state government hiring and regulations and at preventing "the political indoctrination" of Arkansas' schoolchildren, which she did shortly thereafter.

Asked whether the governor expects to roll out the proposed education overhaul package this week or next week, Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Friday night in a written statement that, "As the Governor said in her inaugural address, education is her biggest priority, and we are working with lawmakers to get it done as quickly as possible."

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said Thursday, "I am hopeful that we can at some point maybe make the education reform bill public, but I am not confident we are going to get there [this week] yet."

If not this week, "by the [following week] we really are going to be hearing some of the bills that provide the bold change that Governor Sanders committed to the people of Arkansas when she swore in," he said.

Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, who is sponsoring the criminal justice overhaul legislation with Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said the measure is still being drafted.

Sanders said she wants an education bill that combines her Arkansas LEARNS plan with teacher pay raises into one education bill. The Republican governor's Arkansas LEARNS plan prioritizes increasing literacy, empowering parents, holding educators accountable, improving student readiness, and expanding high-speed internet and improving school safety.

Sanders will participate in an Americans for Prosperity education rally at the state Capitol on Thursday, Henning confirmed.

Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas will be joined by Sanders and state legislators for an education rally with parents, teachers, students and coalition partners from 10:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. in the state Capitol rotunda on the second floor, the group said.

The political advocacy group was founded by brothers Charles and David Koch in 2004. David Koch stepped down from the group's board in 2018 and died in 2019. The group continues to receive support from Charles Koch.

Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas State Director Ryan Norris said in a news release that, "Governor Sarah Sanders received a mandate from the people of Arkansas to empower parents to make one of the most important decisions for their family: how their children will be educated."

"Americans for Prosperity is pleased to support her policy package that will fund students and open up access to quality education for families, no matter their income or where they can afford to live," he said.

Many legislators would like to see the details of the education overhaul legislation.

Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said Thursday, "I am in a low level of understanding of what's in [the bill]."

Asked if he is philosophically inclined to support the measure, he said, "Anything that changes the direction of where we are going that I agree is a good direction, I would support."

"If the numbers they are presenting of only 30% being literate when they leave the third grade, obviously something needs to change to address that," Bryant said. "I wish I knew more. I want to see language, too. ... I want to know what's in it."

Sanders on Tuesday asked lawmakers to send her legislation that expands pre-kindergarten access, improves literacy and gives students what she called "real-world skills they need to succeed in the workplace," and increases teacher salaries.

She said parents cannot be an afterthought in education and parents are the foundation of a child's success, "so let's give parents a greater role in education, including the right to choose the school that's best for their child, whether it is public, private or parochial."

"When we give parents a choice, we give children a chance," Sanders told lawmakers.

She said in a Jan. 5 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "I do think that we can do a better job of letting some funding follow the student [with] things like education savings accounts, stuff like that." She said parents of students attending private schools or who are home-schooled wouldn't necessarily get the same amount the state provides to public schools for students, and that it could be phased in.

Henning said Friday, "... the Governor believes, and this legislation will reflect that parents are the foundation of a child's success."

"She will prioritize giving a greater role in education, including the right to choose the school that's best for their child, including homeschool," Henning said.

When asked about Sanders' desire to include her education priorities in a single bill, Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said Thursday he would have to see the draft legislation before he could comment on whether the rules would allow such a bill.

"I haven't seen a draft of anything on that," he said. "If there are any questions we can look to what the rules and the law provide for."

Hester said that it is critically important to have an omnibus education bill because "we could either debate education stuff all session or we could hit all the points that we all know we want to hit right now, and so putting it in one bill ... is important [and] allows us as a House and Senate and governor to line up behind one thing and [put] huge education reform in one bill."

He said, "I suspect we have a supermajority of members for school choice," and not enough lawmakers opposed to school choice to prevent the bill from passing.

Democratic legislative leaders have objected to combining what they call "vouchers" with teacher pay raises into one bill.

At her news conference Wednesday, Sanders said, "I think putting everything in [one education bill] and building a broad base of support is the best thing for the state and ultimately the best thing for the students of Arkansas."

"Everybody, hopefully all of the stakeholders involved, get a little bit of some of the things that they want to see, but ultimately it is because we want to take a comprehensive approach to addressing the education system and education reform here in the state," she said.

Shepherd said lawmakers would consider all options when it comes to the education bill, including school choice measures such as education savings accounts.

"I think that when it comes to education, that virtually everything has been looked at and everything is likely on the table," he said.

"I think that we recognize that when it comes to our children's education that is a top priority and that we along with many other states have had some trouble and difficulties," Shepherd said. "Any time you have something of importance and significance you want to try to improve on -- and not just improve but that you want to excel in -- you owe it yourself and we owe it to your children to look at all options, so that's a discussion that's ongoing."

Education savings accounts allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses, according to EdChoice, which describes itself as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, nonpartisan group committed to understanding and pursuing a K-12 education system that empowers every family to choose the schooling environment that fits their children's needs.

These funds -- which families generally access via an online platform -- can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials, the group said.

Some education savings accounts, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services, according to EdChoice. The group said eight states have different educational savings accounts.

Arizona has an Empowerment Scholarship Account program that allows parents to opt their children out of public district or charter schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited into an account for defined but multiple purposes, including private school tuition, online education, education therapies, private tutoring or future educational expenses, according to EdChoice.

As for income tax cuts, Hester said, "the plan is in rough discussion right now."

"We are nowhere near a bill," he said. "We are going to finalize education, understand the costs. Then, we are going to finalize criminal justice reform, understand the costs, then talk about income tax [cuts]."

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, who is co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee and serves on the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, said he is working with other lawmakers and the Bureau of Legislative Research to draft a proposed individual and corporation income tax cut bill "with a step down with some appropriate [revenue] triggers in place."

"Of course if things are better than anticipated, you can speed it up," in implementing the proposed tax cuts, he said. He declined to provide details. The state's top individual income tax rate is 4.9% and the state's top corporate income tax rate is 5.3%.

Henning said Sanders called on the Legislature to pass another historic tax cut for Arkansans that continues to responsibly phase out the state income tax.

"Her conversations are continuing with her legislative partners," Henning said.

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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