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Arkansas lawmakers OK reallocation of $34.7 million in federal coronavirus recovery funds to support implementation LEARNS Act

Literacy coaches, tutors said focus by Michael R. Wickline | May 21, 2023 at 6:16 a.m.
Secretary of education Jacob Oliva talks to the press during a signing ceremony for the LEARNS act in the second floor rotunda of the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas' state lawmakers have signed off on the reallocation of $34.7 million in federal coronavirus recovery funds to support the implementation of Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' public school overhaul law, which is known as the LEARNS Act.

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

The state Department of Education's request for approval of a previously approved appropriation zipped through the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee on Tuesday, and the full Legislative Council on Friday without any debate on the request from state lawmakers.

The education department changed its plan for American Rescue Plan funds to use $34.7 million of the department's American Rescue Plan-Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund monies for the first year of the LEARNS Act, and the remaining $10 million has not been allocated and will come from the state Department of Finance and Administration's American Rescue Plan funds, according to department spokeswoman Kim Mundell.

"We are using the education department ARP-ESSER funds instead of using all DF&A [state Department of Finance and Administration] ARP funds in the first year," she said in a written statement.

The state Department of Education is budgeting $6.2 million of the $34.7 million in federal ARP-ESSER funds for literacy coaches, $8.5 million for supplemental education services with tutoring grants of $500, and $20 million for high-impact tutoring, Mundell said.

The department has projected that the LEARNS Act will cost $150 million in state general revenue, about $103 million in increased revenue from the state's education adequacy fund and and about $44 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds in its first year.

In March of 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

During Friday's Legislative Council meeting, state Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, questioned state officials about whether the state's federal American Rescue Plan funds are at risk of being clawed back by the federal government.

She asked how much of the state's leftover American Rescue Plan funds could be clawed back from the state under a proposal by U.S. House Republicans, if it's enacted into federal law.

Alan McVey, the finance department's chief of staff, said, "we have approximately $440 million remaining of the $1.5 billion ARPA funds that haven't been fully obligated or disbursed.

"We haven't been given any indication that the money that was distributed to the states is going to be clawed back," he said. "However, things change. That could change on a moment's notice.

"But what we understand [what] they are looking at clawing back or perhaps considering clawing back would be the federal funds that are still parked at the various departments at the federal level that have not been disbursed either directly or indirectly...," McVey said.

The 145-page LEARNS Act aims to increase the starting annual teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and give teachers making above the minimum a $2,000 raise. The law also creates a voucher program, known as Education Freedom Accounts, for students to attend a private or parochial school or home school. The vouchers will be worth 90% of the per-pupil funding schools receive from the state.

Among other things, the LEARNS Act requires the Arkansas Department of Education to review policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory," and requires high schools to offer a "career ready" pathway as an alternative way for students to earn a diploma in technical education programs.

As part of the LEARNS Act, Arkansas is expanding its cadre of literacy coaches to ensure teachers receive the training and support they need to ensure all students become skilled readers by the end of third grade, state Education Commissioner Jacob Oliva said Tuesday in a commissioner's memo.

The state Department of Education's Office of Learning Services is seeking literacy coaches who will support teachers and promote evidence-based literacy instruction aligned to the science of reading in K-3 classrooms in public schools that have earned the letter designation of D or F across the state of Arkansas, he said in the memo.

For the literacy coaches, the minimum qualifications are minimum of three years of experience teaching literacy, training in the science of reading, as aligned to Arkansas's Right to Read Act, and the ability to travel on a weekly basis, according to the memo. For the literacy coaches, the anticipated starting salary is $70,000 to $74,000 a year. The deadline for applicants is May 31.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Grant Tennille said Wednesday in a news release the state has a literacy crisis, students are suffering and public school educators are being forced to do more with less.

But he said "Governor Sanders's LEARNS voucher scam packaged a few good ideas, like intensive literacy coaches, in with some very bad policies like voucher handouts for unaccountable private schools and ending teacher job protections.

"Unfortunately, using ESSER funds for these literacy coaches also highlights the Governor's hypocrisy and cable news grandstanding: she promised to stop the federal government at our border but will happily use this one-time federal money to fund her unworkable and unaffordable bad ideas," Tennille said in the news release. "How will the Governor pay for the literacy coaches after she spends this limited funding? This is just one of countless unanswered questions many parents and educators have because of how rushed and bullied the LEARNS scheme was."

Sanders' spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Friday in a written statement that "We are proud of the historic investment LEARNS is for our public schools and our great teachers in Arkansas.

"The Governor laid out the funding for LEARNS when it was introduced in February," she said. "The reallocation of ARPA funds is not news and part of the promise the Governor made to not grow government spending and responsibly use taxpayer dollars."

Print Headline: $34 milllion in covid aid shifted to LEARNS


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