Supporters, opponents reflect on passage of Arkansas education overhaul

Fans, foes reflect on bills’ passage

Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker, R-Smackover, motions to speak in favor of the LEARNS Act on Thursday, March 2, 2023, during the House session at the state Capitol in Little Rock. .More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker, R-Smackover, motions to speak in favor of the LEARNS Act on Thursday, March 2, 2023, during the House session at the state Capitol in Little Rock. .More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Following the direction of newly elected Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, lawmakers this legislative session made education their top priority.

Arguably, the most consequential piece of legislation to pass was Sanders' public education overhaul, referred to as the LEARNS Act, some lobbyists said. Two months after it was signed into law, lobbyists and advocates are still mulling the impact of the 145-page law that Sanders said was "the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation" along with a slate of other bills.

Some advocates said the passage of the LEARNS Act marked a change in the momentum for conservative education legislation in the state. While Republicans have had control of the Legislature since 2013, it was 2023 when they made their impact most felt, supporters said.

"I think this was the most transformative session in the history of Arkansas for education," said Laurie Lee, chair of the Reform Alliance, a school choice advocacy group.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

One of the key components of the law is its Educational Freedom Accounts, a phased-in voucher program that will allow students to use state funds to cover the costs to attend a private or home school.

Teachers unions and rural school districts have traditionally pushed against vouchers and have had some influence in the Capitol in swaying lawmakers from passing a full-fledged school choice program. But after Sanders was elected in November, she indicated she would push for a school choice bill.

"We were able to accomplish just about everything we set out [to do]," said Jerry Cox, founder and president of the Family Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group.

The Arkansas Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, lobbied hard against the LEARNS Act. During the bill's hearings, most teachers who testified spoke against the bill, saying the voucher program would hurt public schools by diverting limited state dollars to private schools.

Despite that opposition, the LEARNS Act passed just three weeks after it was introduced.

Teacher unions may feel their influence waning. During the last regular session, in 2021, lawmakers approved a bill to strip public-sector unions of the ability to collectively bargain.

"We didn't expect [it] to happen this quickly. They came in and passed the LEARNS Act really quickly," said Ryan Day, president of Fort Smith Education Association, a local chapter of the Arkansas Education Association.

The LEARNS Act increases the minimum starting salary for teachers from $36,000 a year to $50,000. Teachers making more than $50,000 will receive a $2,000 raise. Currently, school districts around the state have reworked, or are in the process of reworking, their pay scales because of the law.

Teachers have criticized the LEARNS Act for flattening out wages between inexperienced and experienced educators. Others have also criticized the bill for not providing enough funding to finance the teacher raises, a claim the Arkansas Department of Education disputes.

"They basically are setting up public education to fail," Day said. "Even the teacher raises; a lot of those teacher raises are unfunded and their salary schedule is completely flat."

Detractors said the fact that the law came in the form of omnibus legislation that included everything from vouchers, higher teacher salaries and a renewed emphasis on literacy made it harder for lawmakers to vote against it.

"We had rural lawmakers kind of push back against attempts to expand vouchers, and I think this time [the reason] it didn't happen as much was in part strategic, in creating the package to be omnibus-style rather than piecemeal," said Olivia Gardner, director of education policy at Arkansas Advocate for Children and Families.

Cox said the 94th General Assembly passed school choice through the LEARNS Act due to a feeling of inevitability.

"I think the difference this time, the LEARNS Act had such momentum, people who might have otherwise opposed, it would be a lost cause to stop it this time," Cox said.


Along with the LEARNS Act, Republican lawmakers approved a number of bills that had the backing of conservatives, such as House Bill 1156 to prohibit trans students from using the bathroom of their choice and House Bill 1468 barring teachers from using a student's preferred name or pronoun without written parental permission.

Cox said his group helped craft HB 1156 and Senate Bill 81, a bill passed this session that makes librarians criminally liable if they loan out obscene material to minors. SB 81 creates an offense for "furnishing a harmful item to a minor," and removes a defense from state law that protects librarians from being prosecuted for obscenity.

Lawmakers also approved a law to prohibit school districts from deducting union dues from employees' wages. Considering that and the LEARNS Act's repeal of the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, some teachers feel that their profession is under attack.

"It is a direct attack against professional education associations. Why would you [ban] payroll deduction for public school employees, but then you have other city employees, the fire department, the police department, those types of organizations, that you allow them to use payroll [deduction]?" said Kristy Mosby, president of the Little Rock Education Association.

Lee countered that laws passed this legislative session were a necessary blow to the influence of the teachers unions, which do not speak for all educators.

"I think we laid the groundwork for several, many years," Lee said. "It was right for a true leader. She [Sanders] was not beholden to the status quo or the superintendents or the teachers union."

Some education bills passed this session had broad support. Lobbyists from across the spectrum said they supported laws passed to allow pregnant students and new moms more excused absences and requiring naloxone, an emergency treatment for those who overdose on opioids, in public schools.

"It was a tough session, especially for those of us who feel strongly about protecting our public education system," Gardner said. "The name of the game for us and a lot of groups like us is small improvements and small victories where we can get them, and I do feel like we got that this session."

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