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OPINION | NICK STEHLE: For bold reform

LEARNS gives all kids opportunity by NICK STEHLE Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 6, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.

As a father of four, I know that every child's education is different. There's no one-size-fits-all model that works for everyone because everyone is unique--and every one of us deserves an opportunity all the same.

That's why Gov. Sarah Sanders' "Arkansas LEARNS" education plan is so transformative. It directly addresses the three most important components to a successful education: the parents, the teachers, and the students--all at once. It boldly takes on what needs fixing, and doubles down on what works.

It's no exaggeration to say that LEARNS is the biggest, boldest education reform in the country. In a very short time, once this bill is passed and signed into law, the rest of the country is going to be learning (and copying) from us.

For far too many years, the education bureaucracy has tried the same old thing, in the same old buildings, with the same old results. Here in Arkansas, that result has been that only 35 percent of third-graders--about one in three--can read at grade level today.

Unfortunately, at the exact same time that students are struggling, school officials have gone completely off the rails, pushing content that has nothing to do with education--inappropriate sexual lessons at an early age and the indoctrination that teaches kids that our Constitution and our institutions are inherently racist, and exist to perpetuate racism. to be ashamed of the color of their skin.

For many parents, covid-19 was a wakeup call into what's really happening in schools, and we fought back. Today, with Governor Sanders' landmark reform package, we're being heard.

LEARNS puts parents back in the driver's seat for education with Educational Freedom Accounts. Over the course of the next three years, universal school choice is going to be phased in to allow every single family in Arkansas to choose the school that serves their kids best.

The plan will give families up to 90 percent of the previous year's school funding for their student to put toward the education of their choice--the current year's funding is $7,413. There's no limit on charters, and no limit on school-choice transfers. There's even transportation assistance for families to remove the practical barriers to real choice.

For teachers, Arkansas is making a generational change for the better, starting with better pay. The LEARNS plan boosts the minimum teacher salary by nearly 40 percent, to a base of $50,000.

Arkansas' current minimum teacher salary is 48th in the nation--this plan will make us extraordinarily competitive at fourth in the nation. This reform is more than just a pay raise: It expands resources and training for mental health awareness and crisis response; provides 12 weeks of paid maternity leave; and gives a $10,000 merit bonus for the best educators.

Finally (and most importantly), for students, LEARNS makes real changes that are going to make a real impact.

For those struggling third-graders, LEARNS provides $500 in supplemental education services, as well as literacy coaches specifically targeted to the kids who need it. That additional support also comes with accountability--students are going to have to read at their grade level before advancing to the next one.

For older students, LEARNS is dismantling the one-size-fits-all approach with a statewide course choice catalog for students to enroll in; a career-ready dual-track diploma option for students who are moving straight into the workforce after high school; and a new requirement for 75 hours of community service before graduation.

Education is a complicated system, one that's in need of big change in Arkansas. The initial support for this reform has been overwhelming. When it was introduced, it immediately picked up more than enough bill sponsors to pass through the Legislature.

This change is coming, thanks to Governor Sanders and members of the Legislature who know that reform is needed.

Frankly, it would be a good thing if the rest of the country brings our success to their states as well, but the result that matters most to me is closer to home. With future generations of Arkansans (and my own kids) in mind, I'm supporting this reform with the expectation that it will make our whole state stronger in the long run.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for education in Arkansas, but this is a generational opportunity to make education work better for students, teachers, and parents alike.

Nick Stehle, who lives in Benton, is a visiting fellow at Opportunity Solutions Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy organization that seeks to improve lives by advocating for public policies based on free enterprise, individual liberty, and limited accountable government.

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