A new paradigm for Arkansas education begins Tuesday when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul, the LEARNS Act, comes into effect.
In March, Sanders signed Act 237, the LEARNS Act into law, which Sanders called "the biggest, most far-reaching, conservative education reform in America." The LEARNS Act, which passed mostly along partisan lines in the Republican-dominated General Assembly, is Sanders' vision of how to improve education in Arkansas.
The LEARNS Act -- which standards for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety -- includes a new universal school choice program, increased starting pay for teachers and higher literacy standards for third graders. The LEARNS Act will cost $297.5 million in its first year and $343.3 million in the second year.
Most of the hotly debated 145-page education bill was originally supposed to come into effect in March when the Republican governor signed it, but because of a lawsuit from a group of Phillips County residents and two education activists, the law instead will take effect Tuesday.
While the law officially comes into effect this week, many of its key provisions will be phased in over the next three years. Along with the LEARNS Act, the Legislature passed an increase in per-student funding, part of what lawmakers call the adequacy process. The increased state funding for public schools includes for raises for school support staff and cost-of-living raises for teachers.
Under the LEARNS Act, the new minimum annual salary for teachers increases from $36,000 to $50,000, putting Arkansans only behind Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia for starting teacher pay. according to the National Education Association.
Teachers making above the new $50,000 minimum will receive a $2,000 pay increase. Sanders pledged the state will cover the raises in perpetuity. According to an estimate from the Arkansas Department of Education, the teacher raises will cost the state $180 million each year.
The law also creates a "Merit Teacher Incentive Fund Program" that will offer bonuses worth up to $10,000 to teachers who "demonstrate outstanding growth in student performance."
The law also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which will make it easier for schools to fire teachers for poor performance.
The new salaries are part of an effort to recruit and retain teachers, as many school districts have had trouble filling positions. The LEARNS Act also offers full-time school employees 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, with the cost being split by the state and the school district.
To ease the financial burden for those going into the profession, the LEARNS Act increases student loan debt forgiveness from $3,000 to $6,000 for teachers who agree to stay in Arkansas to teach. Additionally, the law creates a teacher academy where the state would pay a prospective student's tuition in exchange for the student agreeing to teach in a designated public school in Arkansas.
The most controversial aspect of the LEARNS Act is the program that gives students state funds to attend a private or home school. The program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, sometimes referred to as vouchers by both detractors and supporters, will allow students to use 90% what public schools receive in per-pupil funding from the previous year to cover the costs of attending a private or home school, which amounts to $6,672 in the first year.
The program will be phased in over three years, beginning this upcoming school year, with students who are enrolled in kindergarten for the first time; attend an F-rated school or a district considered to be in Level 5 of the state's accountability system; have an eligible disability; are homeless; participated in the Succeed Scholarship program last year, are or were in foster care; or a child of an active-duty military parent.
For the 2024-2025 school year, the program will be available to students attending a D-rated school; have a parent who is a military veteran or first-responders. By the 2025-2026 school year, every student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher.
Arkansas is one of several state to expand school choice, part of a national trend by red states that began after the covid-19 pandemic, said Robert Enlow president and CEO of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for school choice.
"I think the pandemic supercharged already what was happening," he said. "I think parents began to realize they had a new way of running schools."
In 2023, seven states -- Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah -- created new school choice programs, according to Enlow, who said Arkansas' school choice program was "top of the class," when compared to similar initiatives in other states.
The LEARNS Act also sets new literacy standards for students to reach by the third grade. By the 2025-2026 school year if students do not meet the new benchmarks on reading they won't be permitted to move on to the fourth grade, with built-in exceptions for special needs, non-native English speakers and other kinds of students.
For students who do not meet the reading requirements, including those with exemptions, schools will be required to offer 90-minutes of literacy instruction every day during the following summer and school year.
The state will place an emphasis on schools to follow a "science of reading" approach to literacy and require schools to help students struggling to meet literacy standards with an "at-home" reading plan.
To help students hit the new benchmarks, the state plans to hire 120 literacy coaches who will be deployed to schools rated a D or F by the state. Students struggling to read at grade level will also be able to apply for a $500 grant to hire a tutor. So far the Arkansas Department of Education has received more than 130 applications for literacy coaches, with interview ongoing according to Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell.
Starting in the 2024-2025 school year, ninth graders will have the option to pursue a non-traditional diploma by entering a career-ready pathway for students to center their education on "modern career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas."
The LEARNS Act also bans Critical Race Theory codifying an executive order Sanders signed into law early in her term, requiring the Department of Education to review any materials, policies or rules that promote the teaching of "Critical Race Theory," or other similar "indoctrination." The law defines prohibited indoctrination as ideas "that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual's color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law."
Critics have said the ban on Critical Race Theory will prevent teachers from discussing racism in the classroom, while Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva has said slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement will still be taught in Arkansas classrooms.
The LEARNS Act also moves the state's early childhood education from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Education. The law creates an office of early childhood education, which will be under the authority of the secretary of education.
On school safety, the law requires a school safety expert review and advise on architectural plans before new construction of the public school facility and schools to develop a plan "to increase the presence of uniformed law enforcement on all public school campuses." School districts will also have to select a person to be responsible for overseeing school safety and requires the state to conduct a review to make sure schools are following state-mandated safety protocols.
Separate from the LEARNS Act, lawmakers approved a 2.8% increase in the per-student funding schools get for the upcoming school year. The funding is a part of what lawmakers refer to as the "adequacy process," a biannual review of public school funding.
The law, Act 744, increases the per-pupil funding schools receive from $7,413 the last school year to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 school year. For the 2024-2025 school year, schools will receive $7,771 per student.
The law increases spending by $75 million for fiscal year 2024 and $132 million for fiscal year 2025, the second-largest in the past 10 years for per-student funding, according to House Education Chairman Brian Evans.
The law includes state funding for $2-an-hour raises to full-time classified school staff, which are non-teaching positions such as bus drivers, custodians and special education paraprofessionals. However, the law only includes suggestions on how school districts should spend the funding, meaning classified staff in some districts may not receive a raise. Under the law, teachers will receive a 1.8% cost of living adjustment in fiscal year 2024 and a 2.2% raise in fiscal year 2025.