Today's Paper News Sports Features Business Opinion LEARNS Guide Newsletters Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

Sanders’ education bill clears committee, heads to vote before full House

Sanders’ education bill heads to full House by Neal Earley | March 2, 2023 at 9:07 a.m.
“I think we have to remember LEARNS is not the end of the conversation, even in this legislative session,” Rep. Keith Brooks, the bill’s sponsor, said of the education bill Wednesday during the House Education Committee session. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The House Education Committee moved forward Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul Wednesday, sending the bill to the House of Representatives.

The committee approved the bill on a voice vote, and it will head to the House floor for a vote today, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said. The committee's vote comes after seven hours of public testimony Tuesday with 94 members of the public signing up to speak for and against the bill during the hearing.

"My signature Arkansas LEARNS is headed to the House floor," Sanders tweeted after the committee's vote. "I am not interested in being a caretaker of the failed status quo -- I vowed to be [a] change-maker for the people. We are one step closer to huge, transformational education reform that will impact generations of Arkansans."

The Republican governor has described Senate Bill 294 as her top legislative priority since taking office in January. The 144-page bill is an omnibus package that Sanders said is "the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation."

The bill includes a phased-in voucher program to attend a private or home school. It also calls for a $14,000 increase in the starting salary for teachers and funding for literacy coaches to boost reading levels for elementary students.

With 54 of 100 House members listed as co-sponsors, it is likely the House will pass the bill today. If approved by the House, the LEARNS Act would move back to the Senate for a concurring vote before heading to the governor's desk for her signature.

"I believe this is a compromise bill," said Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers. "I think that there are things that we can take back to teachers, we can take back to students, we can take back to our parents, we can take to our administrators, and albeit, it's not the best bill. It is the best bill for our students."

Perhaps the most contentious part of the bill is the proposed voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, which will allow students to use 90% of foundation funding from the previous school year to go toward a private or home school. For the 2022-2023 school year, foundation funding per student was $7,413.

The voucher program will be phased in over three years, beginning in the 2023-2024 school year for students in F-rated schools; enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who 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.

For Sanders, the voucher program is a way to help students in struggling school districts not be trapped by their ZIP code, by letting the state funds for public schools also be used on a private or home school education.

During a hearing Tuesday, some parents said private and home schools could provide the type of intensive care and education public schools cannot provide to many special needs children. For many, the bill is an aggressive attempt to reform education in Arkansas, which lags behind the national average in reading and math scores.

"Ultimately when you look at the bill in its entirety, what we all want is to finally do something that will take our state from the bottom of the rankings, where we are year after year, and deliver something big and bold for Arkansas and for the students," said Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Centerton.

Critics contend vouchers would drain funding from public schools, many of which are already underfunded and under-resourced. Opponents of the bill also said public schools, unlike private schools, do not have the option of turning away students and holding the schools to similar standards is unfair. Others argued that vouchers would only partially cover tuition for private schools and would mostly benefit middle- and upper-class families who already have funds to afford a private education.

Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, took issue with the bill's voucher program, saying studies have shown they do not work.

"Vouchers do not support students with disabilities, and it does exacerbate segregation, skirt accountability and transparency, funds discrimination and leaves underserved students and communities behind," Garner said.

Others pointed to what they saw as a rushed process that they contend did not include enough input from teachers and administrators while the bill was being crafted. Last week, the Senate approved the bill with one Republican, Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., of Texarkana, voting "no," saying he was not given enough time to read the bill. The bill was filed Feb. 20 and passed by the Senate three days later.

"It won't be even within two weeks that this bill was made available to the public, made available to educators, education administration, parents and, obviously, you've heard plenty enough testimony that it is not enough time for anyone," Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said Wednesday.

The $50,000 starting salary mandated by the bill would boost Arkansas to near the top in the country in minimum pay for educators and offer $2,000 raises to those making more than the minimum and $10,000 in bonus pay for high test scores or teaching in a geographic or subject area of high need.

However, the bill also would repeal the state's minimum salary schedule for educators and the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires notice before a teacher can be fired. The bill also includes provisions for teacher recruitment, literacy coaches and tutors, a new diploma track for high school students who want to focus on studying a trade, enhanced security measures for schools and codification of Sanders' executive order banning Critical Race Theory.

An amendment to the bill added back in language requiring teachers to be given "an opportunity for a hearing" in front of the school board before they can be fired.

Before Wednesday's vote, committee members took turns reflecting on Tuesday's hearing, with several of those who voted for the bill saying they thought the process was rushed and the bill could be improved. Rep. Keith Brooks, the bill's House sponsor, told committee members during his closing remarks that the LEARNS Act was a "great starting point" and that they could continue to work through the session to better public education in Arkansas.

"I think we have to remember LEARNS is not the end of the conversation, even in this legislative session," said Brooks, R-Little Rock. "It doesn't mean it's the end of the things we're going to do in education, the things we're going to do to impact our kids, the things we're going to do to consider the needs of teachers and people all over the state of Arkansas."

The idea the bill could be further altered after its passage, if needed, was persuasive for some Republicans who said they had doubts about the bill.

"I've had fears. I've had doubts," said Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio. "I've had questions about this bill, but I'm trusting the sponsor that if there's problems with the bill and there's things that need to be changed that we'll work together to make sure that they get addressed and fixed at a very quick pace."

Rep. Hope Duke, R-Gravette, said she had "some issues with the process" of the bill's passage but ultimately decided to support the bill.

"We've got to get this right, and I'm trusting that we're going to get this right," Duke said.

  photo  Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, speaks Wednesday during the House Education Committee’s consideration of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education package. On a voice vote, the committee sent the bill to the full House. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Print Headline: LEARNS legislation is approved by panel


Sponsor Content