Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her education bill into law Wednesday afternoon, calling it “the largest overhaul of the state’s education system in Arkansas history.”
Watch the signing here:
During a ceremony in the second-floor rotunda at the State Capitol, the Republican governor described her education reform — a 145-page omnibus law that covered everything from school vouchers, to teachers raises and higher literacy standards for elementary students — as “a comprehensive approach to all education, from cradle to career.”
“We’ve seen how status quo condemns Arkansans to a lifetime of poverty, and we’re tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings,” Sanders said. “We know that if we don’t plant this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line.”
Sanders declined to take questions from reporters after the bill signing.
The law, also known as the LEARNS Act, has been the top priority for Sanders since taking office in January. The bill includes school vouchers, a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers, a dual diploma for high school students learning a trade, and a repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which makes it easier for school districts to fire teachers because o poor performance.
The voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, will allow students to use state education dollars to attend a private or home school of their choice.
The bill also includes raises for educators. Teachers making more than the new state minimum of $50,000 a year will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach subject matter or in a geographic area that are in high demand.
The bill passed the House and Senate with an emergency clause, which means it can take effect immediately. For three weeks, the bill quickly made its was through the Legislature with complaints from some, including supporters, that the process to pass the bill was rushed.
Sanders noted Wednesday that the bill passed only two months after she took office in January.
7:05 a.m. Sanders’ education bill passes Senate, heads to governor’s desk
The Arkansas Senate approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul Tuesday, sending the bill to the governor's desk for her signature.
The Senate voted 26-8 to approve Senate Bill 294, also known as the LEARNS Act, after it was amended last week in the House of Representatives. While the Senate approved the bill Feb. 23, the chamber voted on the bill again Tuesday to concur with an amendment the House made last week.
Sanders said in a statement shortly after Tuesday's vote she will sign the bill into law during a ceremony at noon today at the Capitol.
"Today's final passage of the biggest, boldest, most conservative education reforms in America makes Arkansas a blueprint for the country," Sanders said in a release. "Arkansas LEARNS will raise teacher pay, empower parents, and give our students the skills to succeed in life. These changes can't come soon enough."
The bill is the Republican governor's signature education legislation that calls for school vouchers, a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers, a dual diploma for high school students learning a trade, and a repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, making it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance. The bill passed the House and Senate with an emergency clause, which means it can take effect immediately.
Since taking office in January, Sanders has said education will be her top priority as governor, saying she wanted to put an end to a system where students were trapped in failing schools because of their zip code. The most contentious part of Sanders' 145-page education bill is the voucher program, called Educational Savings Accounts.
Sen. Fred Love, D-Mabelvale, said the bill could mean increased racial segregation, pointing to use of vouchers after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board ruling, ending legal school segregation.
"The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," Love said. "Am I saying people are trying to segregate schools? No, but the result was we segregated school."
The bill would tie education funding to students, giving them 90% of what schools get per student in state funding from the previous school year to attend a private or home school, which would currently amount to $6,672. The legislation also calls for a new minimum starting salary of $50,000 a year for teachers, which would rank Arkansas among the highest in the country for minimum teacher pay.
"For far too long, Arkansas has languished at the bottom of national education rankings, but that begins to change today," said Laurie Lee, chairman of The Reform Alliance, in a news release. "This expansive investment in education to enact the bold vision of Gov. Sanders will be a turning point for our state, and I would hope to see it embraced."
The Educational Freedom Account will be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. Students who are enrolled at F-rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who have an active-duty military parent would be given first priority.
In the following school year, students who are enrolled in a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of first-responders will become eligible for an Educational Freedom Account. 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 was amended to add an "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before a teacher is terminated after the bill would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year. The amendment also calls for school districts to adopt a salary schedule for teachers and prevent school safety plans from being subject to public records requests.
As part of the package teachers making above the proposed new minimum will receive $2,000 raises and could earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for earning high marks or being willing to teach in geographic areas or teach subject matter that is in high demand.
Many teachers spoke against the bill during its two public hearings with many arguing that an end to the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act would end critical labor protections for teachers. Others said the bill's repeal of a recommended salary schedule would hurt experienced teachers who are rewarded for experience.
While teachers must be given notice and a hearing before they can be fired, that does not apply when a school district opts not to renew a teacher's contract, said Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill's sponsor.
Some have criticized the bill's sponsor for what they perceived to be a rushed process that did not include enough input from other lawmakers or teachers and superintendents.
"This bill was pushed through the Legislature at an unprecedented speed and our children are going to suffer because of it," said Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, in a news release Tuesday. "The law will weaken our public schools and unfairly increase disparities between rural and urban districts. We tried to warn our legislators about the impacts this overhaul would have on our children but they did not listen."
In her closing remarks Tuesday, Davis rejected the idea that developing the bill was rushed and did not include enough voices from outside the Legislature.
"Hundreds of people and thousands of hours went into writing this bill," Davis said. "This is the most collaborative and comprehensive process that I have been part of, and this is just the beginning of the work."
The LEARNS Act also calls for higher literacy standards and resources for students to increase their reading levels.
The bill calls for 120 literacy coaches and grants for families to hire tutors to assist students with reading. Students who fail the state Department of Education's reading requirements by the third grade won't be permitted to move on to the fourth grade unless granted an exemption.
The bill also requires high schools to offer students a "career ready" pathway for the ninth-grade class by the 2024-2025 year to focus their education on "modern career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas," as part of a focus on technical education.
To help recruit more educators to the profession, the bill creates the "Teacher Academy Scholarship Program" to help cover tuition costs for those studying to become teachers. The bill also increases the state's student loan repayment from $3,000 to $6,00 per year for teachers with student debt.
The LEARNS Act also codifies Sanders' executive order banning Critical Race Theory and other "prohibited indoctrination," asking the Department of Education to review any materials, policies or rules that promote the teaching the of theory.
In the wake of recent school shootings, the bill codifies some recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission, specifically calling for schools to have a comprehensive school safety assessment and to work with law enforcement to improve security.
The total cost of the LEARNS Act will be $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that coming in the form of new spending, according to a fiscal analysis by the Arkansas Department of Education.
In the second year, as more students become eligible for the state's school voucher program, the cost would increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.
The increased pay for teachers will cost the state $180 million each year, according to the Department of Education. The Educational Freedom Accounts will cost $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 in the second year. In the third year, Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration, said the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million.
Two Republican, Senators Jimmy Hickey Jr., of Texarkana and Bryan King of Green Forrest, along with the six Democrats voted against the bill. King said he voted against the bill because of a concern over its "long-term costs."
"If you are going to be increasing spending, right, then you need to be decreasing spending somewhere else," King said.
King said he supports vouchers, but said he would prefer they come in the form of scholarships for students who score high on standardized tests.