Welcome to the Democrat-Gazette's guide to Arkansas LEARNS. Here you can find a full breakdown of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul package, including what it is, what supporters and critics say and what comes next. You can also find the text of the LEARNS Act, our previous reporting on the package and more.
Finally, if you have questions about the LEARNS Act that aren't answered on this page, let us know here. Your feedback helps us to improve this guide.
Table of contents
• How can I find the state's Arkansas LEARNS website?
• When did the LEARNS Act become law?
• Text of the Arkansas LEARNS Act
• What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?
• What will the voucher program do?
• How will it affect teacher salaries and dismissal?
• What else does the education overhaul do?
• How much will the package cost?
• What happens now that the bill has passed?
• Can the LEARNS Act be repealed?
• Subscribe to our weekly education newsletter, Grade Point Arkansas
How can I find the state's Arkansas LEARNS website?
The state's Arkansas LEARNS website, which officials describe as a one-stop shop for information on the education overhaul, is at learns.ade.arkansas.gov.
When did the LEARNS Act become law?
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Senate Bill 294, also known as the LEARNS Act, into law March 8.
• $50,000 minimum salaries for starting teachers
• $2,000 raises for more veteran teachers and educator incentives of up to $10,000.
• Phased-in universal state-funded private school education account/voucher program
• Encourages traditional school districts to partner with open-enrollment charter schools to operate low-performing traditional schools
• Repeals the decades-old Teacher Fair Dismissal and the School Employees Fair Hearing acts
When was it filed?
Monday, Feb. 20.
Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock
Text of the Arkansas LEARNS Act
What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?
A 145-page omnibus law that covers everything from school vouchers, to increased pay for teachers and higher literacy standards for elementary students, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ has described her education reform package as “the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history.”
The law, also known as the LEARNS Act, has been the top priority for Sanders since she took office in January. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.
While the Republican governor campaigned on a broad outline of education reform that called for parental empowerment, new literacy standards and accountability for teachers, Sanders did not disclose details of her long-awaited education plan until Feb. 8. The bill itself was filed roughly two weeks later.
For three weeks, the bill made its way through the Legislature with complaints from some that the process to pass the bill was rushed. Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law March 8, exactly a month after she unveiled the package.
Eleven Phillips County residents and two public school advocates filed a lawsuit May 8 challenging the LEARNS Act. The lawsuit claims lawmakers erred when approving the law's emergency clause, a parliamentary move that allows legislation to take effect immediately.
In the case, Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright found that LEARNS was not yet in effect, blocking the state from enforcing or implementing the law until a June 20 hearing. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin subsequently filed an immediate notice of appeal over Wright's temporary restraining order to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court on June 2 denied the request from Griffin's office to overturn Wright's order, leaving that order in place.
What will the voucher program do?
The new voucher program the law creates, called Educational Freedom Accounts, ties state funding for public schools to students. Students who receive an Educational Freedom Account will get 90% of what public schools get per student in state funding from the previous school year. The per-student funding for the 2022-2023 school year was $7,413.
The Educational Freedom Accounts program will be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, creating a tiered priority list for students. At the top of the list for vouchers will be 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.
[RELATED: Charter plans in state surge for next school year]
The next priority will be given to 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. By the 2025-2026 school year, each student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school.
Sanders said the voucher program would end a "one-size-fits-all model," where students attend schools based on their zip code rather than their individual needs.
"Under Arkansas' current system, a family's zip code is often the only thing that determines whether their kids will get the education that they need to succeed," Sanders said. "With new Education Freedom Accounts, parents will be able to send their kids to whatever school works best, whether it's private, public, parochial or home school."
How have others responded to the voucher program?
The voucher program has been the most debated provision of the LEARNS Act, gaining praise, and criticism, from state and national groups. Critics of the Educational Freedom Accounts said they will divert much-needed state funding meant for public schools to private schools.
"LEARNS creates a tiered system to give some students better advantages than others," Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said in a statement. "Public schools educate over 90% of students in Arkansas, but now they will be forced to compete for public tax dollars against private schools that don't have to follow the same rules."
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said in a statement that "LEARNS will dismantle and defund our public schools through a voucher system that has not worked anywhere ever. While some of the bill is admirable, its purported benefits will not reach our students in greatest need."
National conservative and pro-school choice groups released statements Wednesday lauding Sanders for the passage of the LEARNS Act, saying Arkansas will join the ranks of states such as Arizona and West Virginia that have implemented similar education measures.
"The new Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account Program makes Arkansas the 11th state in the union to adopt a form of educational savings accounts," said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, in a statement. "This initiative will ultimately allow every family in the state to qualify and ensure each of their children can attend the education institution of their choice."
Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that advocates for school vouchers, said in a statement, "The heightened parental engagement instigated by the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't slowed down; parents continue to demand the ability to customize where and how their children are educated, and lawmakers are listening."
How will it affect salaries for district employees?
The LEARNS Act will raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000 a year, leaving Arkansas behind only Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.
Teachers making above the new $50,000 a year minimum also will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach a subject matter or in a geographic area that is in high demand.
Sanders said the bill would clear the way for 15,249 teachers to receive a raise to the new minimum, which would take effect for the 2023-2024 school year.
The increased starting salaries are an attempt to fill labor shortages at schools around the state. In recent months, school districts have had trouble retaining their staff and recruiting teachers, made worse by the fact Arkansas has had relatively low salaries for teachers when compared with other states. Arkansas has ranked ahead of only Colorado, Missouri and Montana for starting salaries for teachers. The minimum salary for teachers in the state was set at $36,000 a year, compared with a national average of $41,770, according to the National Education Association.
To attract more to the profession, full-time school employees also would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, the cost of which is to be split by the state and the school district.
The law also creates a "Teacher Academy Scholarship Program," which covers tuition costs for prospective and current educators. The state's student loan repayment plan also will be increased from up to $3,000 to $6,000 per year in exchange for the student pledging to teach in a designated public school in Arkansas.
"We all know that an excellent education starts with excellent teachers," Sanders said. "Arkansas LEARNS gives our public schools the resources they need to attract and retain our great teachers."
The law repeals the state's salary schedule for teachers, instead requiring each school district to come up with its own pay structure for educators. Districts must decide for themselves to what degree they can reward educators' experience and education, state officials and lawmakers said.
Some education leaders have said their districts will struggle to fairly compensate teachers for their experience or education levels as a result of the law. As a result, they worry educators will leave their districts for others that can afford more broader pay scales.
That arrangement, in which teachers with greater experience or a higher level of education receive additional pay, is known as a "salary schedule."
[RELATED: State says it will fund LEARNS raises, but districts in Arkansas worry over additional costs]
Some superintendents have pointed out that if they wish to maintain a scale similar to the one they used before LEARNS, the cost to their districts could be in the millions. First-year teachers in a district where the minimum salary is $36,000 would see a $14,000, or 38%, increase in pay to $50,000. A teacher with several years of experience and a $48,000 salary would see only a $2,000, or 4%, increase funded by LEARNS. Any additional compensation for experience or education would have to be paid through other means.
Many superintendents say it is only fair to veteran teachers for districts to maintain a strong salary scale under LEARNS. However, some say smaller districts will struggle to afford that.
Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Executive Director Mike Hernandez acknowledged that changes to salary schedules would likely be necessary for at least some districts, and that many may not be able to maintain a salary schedule similar to what they had prior to the law.
How will it affect teacher dismissal?
Arkansas LEARNS also repeals 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 move is meant to make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance, something Sanders hinted at when she campaigned on accountability for teachers. Teachers will still have the "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before they can be fired.
The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was a law that required school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year.
How have others responded to the teacher pay and dismissal changes?
Brooks, who was one of the bill’s two sponsors, said repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act is something superintendents asked for to help with "the challenge of moving on from teachers who they deem aren't performing up to their expectations."
McCullough, the House minority leader, expressed concerns, however.
"As a teacher for three decades, I am worried about what this will do to the teaching profession," she said. "It does raise the minimum salary, but it revokes workplace protections and unnecessarily voids a uniform salary schedule that was mandated by the courts. That's a slap in the face to educators and will exacerbate our teacher shortage."
What else does the education overhaul do?
The LEARNS Act also sets a new standard for literacy in Arkansas, barring students -- with exceptions -- who fail to meet the state Department of Education's reading requirements from advancing from the third grade. The bill calls for 120 literacy coaches and grants for families to hire tutors to assist students with reading.
High school students also will have the "option to earn a high school diploma through a career-ready pathway," where a student could take classes to prepare them for a career that does not require a college degree, such as automotive mechanics or agriculture.
The bill 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.
The law also includes codification of Sanders' executive order on Critical Race Theory, which requires the Department of Education to review policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory."
Also included in the act are recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which reconvened this summer, mandating that public schools develop a comprehensive school safety assessment and work with local police to improve safety.
How much will the package cost?
The LEARNS Act will cost the state $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that coming in the form of new spending, according to a study by the Arkansas Department of Education.
In year two, the cost will increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding. Pay for teachers will cost the state $180 million. The law's voucher program will cost $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 in the second year, according to the Department of Education.
In the third year, the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million, said Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration.
The Education Department's analysis estimates 7,000 students will enroll in the Educational Freedom Accounts program in the first year, and 14,000 in the following year.
What happens now that the bill has been signed into law?
The day after the Arkansas LEARNS Act to revamp public education was signed into law, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talked to the state Board of Education about the next steps to bring the provisions of the law to fruition.
Six work groups are being assembled by the state Department of Education to develop recommendations for its rules and policies.
These work groups will each focus on a specific topic: school safety; early learning; parental empowerment; teaching and learning; educator workforce and career readiness, according to a memo from the agency.
March 31 was the deadline to apply to participate in the groups. Over 1,000 people submitted applications, Education Department Secretary Jacob Oliva said during an online forum on Wednesday.
"We're going to start bringing in experts and leaders from all over the state to sit around with staff here at the department to start drafting rules," Oliva said in an interview the previous week. Their recommendations will go to the secretary and the state Board of Education for consideration before being reviewed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office.
[RELATED: List released of those chosen to help state implement LEARNS law]
By law, most of these rules are required to be in place by July 1, 2024, Oliva said.
During a forum on March 29, Oliva said that an effort will be made to keep those not chosen for work groups informed about their work and seek feedback from them as the rules are made.
The groups will meet both virtually and in person, according to the Education Department memo announcing the work groups.
Oliva said in February that he also anticipates the development of an information dashboard to keep the board and public up to date on the new work.
Oliva proposed that the Education Board and agency staff use time in April for a board workshop to discuss draft standards and the provisions of the LEARNS Act, much of which is to be initiated in the coming 2023-24 school year.
Can the LEARNS Act be repealed?
Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students aims to repeal the LEARNS Act through a referendum, giving the final say to Arkansas voters. Steven Grappe, chair of the ballot question committee, said the group formed in the wake of opposition to Sanders' education legislation.
Under Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution, citizens have the right to repeal laws passed by the state Legislature through a referendum. To get a referendum on the ballot, a ballot question committee has until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns to collect signatures.
Signatures can only be collected for referendums on laws passed in the most recent session. While lawmakers informally ended the session April 7, the official end of the session, also called "Sine Die," isn't until May 1. To get the referendum on the ballot, Grappe's group would need at least 54,522 signatures, which is 6% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.
Additionally, signatures would have to come from voters in at least 50 different counties, according to a new law passed by the General Assembly during the most recent legislative session. But before volunteers can start gathering signatures, they would need to have the referendum's ballot title and popular name approved by the Arkansas Attorney General's Office. Responsibility for validating the signatures would fall to the Arkansas Secretary of State.
Under a new law, passed by the state Legislature, approval for proposed ballot measures falls back under the jurisdiction of the attorney general, which oversaw petitions prior to 2019. Previously, the state Board of Election Commissioners was tasked with reviewing ballot measures.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin has 10 business days to review a proposed ballot question and popular name.
Griffin certified ballot language for the proposed referendum on June 5.
The decision clears the way for CAPES to start gathering signatures to get their proposed referendum on the November 2024 ballot.
Reporting for this summary provided by Neal Earley and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Don't forget to subscribe to our weekly education newsletter, Grade Point Arkansas
Keep up with the latest on education in the Natural State by subscribing to our education newsletter, Grade Point Arkansas. Get it in your inbox every Friday, and sign up for our other newsletters, by visiting here.
Articles on the Arkansas LEARNS Act
Signing and implementation of LEARNS Act
• High court maintains block on LEARNS Act
• LEARNS Act is not yet in effect, judge decides
• Oliva: ACT Aspire to be replaced with LEARNS in mind
• List released of those chosen to help state implement LEARNS law
• State to do LEARNS guidance for districts
• 'Transformation contract' authorized for state-controlled Marvell-Elaine School District
• Private schools, parents await details on LEARNS Act vouchers
• Charter plans in state surge for next school year
• Oliva: New LEARNS website to be ‘1-stop shop’ for information on education overhaul
• State takes over Marvell-Elaine schools; LEARNS permits ‘transformation contract’ with 3rd party
• Work groups to develop rules for LEARNS’ implementation
• Arkansas teacher union chief says answers on education overhaul 'are in short supply'
• Arkansas' education chief vows accountability in funding for private school, home school
• Sanders, Oliva to board: Plenty of work ahead
Districts’ responses and preparation
• Arkansas schools keep eye on employee exits
• North Little Rock School District weighs teacher salaries under state law
• Little Rock School District leaders talk LEARNS ramifications
• Springdale superintendent says district will be fine amid LEARNS Act changes
• Arkansas LEARNS Act stirs Jefferson County superintendents' reaction
• Worry, optimism expressed as superintendents in Arkansas prepare for LEARNS’ impact
• State says it will fund LEARNS raises, but districts in Arkansas worry over additional costs
Process through Arkansas Legislature
• Sanders signs Arkansas LEARNS, her education overhaul, into law
• Sanders' amended education bill heads back to full Senate for approval
• House passes amended Arkansas LEARNS bill, sends it back to the Senate
• Sanders’ education bill clears committee, heads to vote before full House
• Sanders’ education overhaul seen as headed toward passage as some call for tweaks
• Sanders’ education bill clears Arkansas Senate, heads to House
• Sanders’ education bill goes before Arkansas Senate committee on Wednesday
• Attorney general approves wording of proposed referendum to repeal education law
• Lawsuit filed challenging LEARNS Act in effort to stop charter takeover of Marvell-Elaine School District
• Ballot language for a proposed referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act rejected again by Arkansas attorney general
• Supporters, opponents reflect on passage of Arkansas education overhaul
• Group seeking repeal of Sanders’ LEARNS Act resubmits referendum
• Citing misleading language, Arkansas’ attorney general rejects proposed referendum to repeal LEARNS Act
• Group plans to pursue repeal of Sanders’ LEARNS Act through referendum
• Students protest at Capitol after LEARNS bill signed
• Bill segregates, Central students write Sanders
• Public weighs in on Arkansas LEARNS
• Advocacy leaders call for more time before House vote on Sanders’ education bill
• Governor’s education bill stirs concern in Northwest Arkansas’ first public forums on the proposal
• Early reaction to Arkansas education bill mixed
General information on bill
• Covid seen as driving more states to vouchers
• Education chief Jacob Oliva talks Sanders' Arkansas LEARNS proposals
• Education bill calls for $50K starting salary for Arkansas teachers, voucher program
LEARNS Act guide compiled by Josh Snyder of the Democrat-Gazette.
Last updated Tuesday June 6, 2023.