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Public weighs in on Arkansas LEARNS

House panel debate, vote set for today by Neal Earley, Will Langhorne | March 1, 2023 at 10:41 a.m.
An overflow crowd listens to questions from committee members as the Arkansas LEARNS bill is presented during the House Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock..More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Members of the public had their second chance weigh in on Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul during a marathon meeting Tuesday as the bill continues to make its way through the state Legislature.

The House Committee on Education took no action on the bill, with chair Brian Evans, R-Cabot, saying he wanted to give members time to mull over public comments before a scheduled debate and vote today.

Tuesday's meeting began at 9 a.m. before breaking for approximately two-and-a-half hours, resuming and ultimately finishing up shortly after 9 p.m.

[LIVE VIDEO: House Education Committee to meet at 2:45 p.m. »]

The bill, which calls for a phased-in voucher program that will provide 90% of per-student state foundation funding for students to attend a private or home school, has become an object of contentious debate that has drawn criticism from teachers and praise from school choice activists. The bill also calls for a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for Arkansas teachers, which would boost the state's minimum pay for educators to among the highest in the nation.

Last week the Senate approved Senate Bill 294, also known as the Arkansas LEARNS Act, and if approved by the House the legislation would have to move back to the Senate for a concurring vote before heading to Sanders for action.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, presented the bill in front of a packed hearing room inside one of the Legislature's largest meeting rooms at the multi-agency complex, also known as Big MAC.

In total, 94 people signed up to testify for and against the bill Tuesday, with police asking some people to leave the hearing room because it was well beyond capacity. Members of the public took turns for about eight hours giving lawmakers their thoughts on the bill.

"This bold vision that Gov. Sanders has put forward in partnership with the General Assembly represents the most aggressive and focused education package in the history of our great state and likely the nation," Brooks said. "Arkansas LEARNS is our call to arms."


Sanders' education bill calls for a voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, which will provide students with 90% of foundation funding from the prior school year.

For the 2022-2023 school year the foundation per student was $7,413. The voucher program will be phased in over three years, beginning with the 2023-2024 school year.

The program will be open first to students in F-rated schools enrolled in kindergarten who were or are in a foster care program, have a disability or have an active-duty military parent. For the 2024-2025 school year, the voucher program will expand to students attending a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of 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 to attend a private or home school.

The bill's school vouchers were the most debated issue during Tuesday's hearing, with critics arguing the vouchers would effectively defund public schools, while proponents said the Educational Freedom Accounts would tie public dollars to students instead of to schools.

"Instead of taking all of this additional money and putting it into vouchers and transportation, competitive grants and all of these things, let's put it in folks' school," said Deanna Klaus, a seventh-grade math teacher. "Public tax dollars belong in the public schools where we can educate all of our students."

Many of the parents who spoke in favor of the bill said they had children with special needs who need intensive care that many public schools could not offer.

Cassandra Bone spoke in favor of the legislation, saying public schools generally aren't equipped to serve students with special needs.

Bone said her child was able to attend Compass Academy in Conway, a private, non-profit school for children with developmental disabilities, thanks to a scholarship.

"My child, who was barely speaking, is doing multiplication," she said. "Every child should have the opportunity if they don't fit the mold."

The voucher program would cost the state $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 million in the second, according to an analysis from the state Department of Education. The analysis estimates 7,000 students in the first year and 14,000 in the second year will take advantage of the voucher program.

In the third year, when every student in the state would be eligible for vouchers, public funding will be prorated on a per-need basis.

"I know that we say that school choice is an option, but we have no schools that are A or B schools in our area," said Jessie McGruder, an educator from West Memphis.

Kevin Tipton, a member of the Cabot School Board, said the bill had a lot of benefits, including expansion of pre-kindergarten education, grants for tutors and literacy coaches to help students who are not reading at-grade level. He also said he was pleased with the bill's increased starting pay for teachers and the bill's "dual track" diploma, which would allow high school students to focus their education on a skill or trade.

Tipton summed up his support for the bill by quoting a question from his grandfathers, who he said he considered his "political talking buddies."

"Each of them would ask me: Does the good that this creates outweigh the concerns? The answer to that is yes," Tipton said.

Heath Bennett, superintendent of Haskell Harmony Grove School, opposed the bill and questioned how state officials would find the funding to cover its provisions. Bennett said the bill's voucher program would do little to help students in his district, some of whom take more than two-hour bus rides to school.

"It's very disheartening to listen to how public schools fail all the time," he said. "If you look at my ACT scores, you may wonder how I'm a superintendent. I was very blessed to have people who believed in me a long time ago. That's what public schools do."

Amanda Escue, an administrator at Lighthouse, a home school cooperative in northeast Arkansas, echoed a refrain many in favor of the bill mentioned, that public schools do not work for all students.

"The current model is not successful for all children, and I speak specifically about special learning," she said.


Under the bill, starting salaries for teachers would increase from $36,000 to $50,000 a year, which would place Arkansas fourth in the nation for starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the country.

Additionally, each teacher will receive a $2,000 raise and could earn up to $10,000 in bonus pay for high test scores or teaching in a geographic or subject area of high need.

Most who testified Tuesday said they favored the increase in starting pay for teachers, noting that with Arkansas' relatively low cost of living it would make the state an attractive landing spot for new educators. The new starting salaries also would mean a change to the state's complicated pay schedule for teachers, which rewards educators for experience and education. The bill would require school districts to adopt their own pay schedules, Brooks said.

Administrators from smaller school districts worried whether they could afford the increase in starting pay. The bill would set aside state funding for increased teacher pay, requiring schools to pay teachers at least 80% of what the state recommends they do as a part of its funding formula for schools, also known as the matrix.

"I do see this as causing great stress on my small schools," said Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio.


The idea that lawmakers are hastily pushing through Sanders' education package is one of the main criticisms the bill's sponsors have received since introducing the legislation Feb. 20.

Brooks and Senate sponsor Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, filed the bill last Monday. About 40 hours later the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on the bill, with the Senate debating and voting on the bill Thursday.

"Sen. Davis and I -- and others -- joined Gov. Sanders in the Delta over a month ago to listen to educators and administrators about their real world challenges and how they would best address those needs," Brooks said. "And so, the reality is that Arkansas LEARNS is not some sort of haphazardly created blueprint that was written one day and filed the next."

Some complained, however, including some Republican lawmakers, that the public was not given enough time to thoroughly read the 144-page bill.

"There's not one superintendent in my local area that had any boots on the ground from a member of this body or the Senate or got a call as this was being put together," said William Roundtree, superintendent of Carlisle Public Schools.


The bill also calls for the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, the state law that requires educators be given written notice before being fired.

Brooks said an amendment that he filed Friday would add back in some due protections for teachers to have a hearing before being fired. He said the repeal of the law would allow school districts to fire poor-performing teachers.

Rep. Steven Walker, R-Horseshoe Bend, asked how the school would evaluate "non-testing" teachers such as physical education and music teachers. State Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said each school district will come up with ways to evaluate "non-testing" school districts.

Rep. Ron McNair, R-Harrison, asked what input the public would have in the rule-making authority the legislation prescribes for the Department of Education, saying it seems that only after the bill's passage would bureaucrats and lawmakers determine how the bill will work.

Brooks said the public will be a part of the rule-making process.

 Gallery: Arkansas General Assembly - 2/28/23

Print Headline: Public weighs in on LEARNS


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