Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders education overhaul passed the Arkansas House of Representatives on Thursday, sending the bill to the Senate for a concurring vote.
Senate Bill 294, also known as the LEARNS Act, is Sanders' education reform initiative, an omnibus bill that includes state funds that students could use to attend a private or home school and a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers.
The bill passed the House on a 78 to 21 vote. The Senate will still need to vote to concur with the House’s amendment to the bill before the bill heads to Sanders for her signature.
Since lawmakers introduced the bill 10-days ago, many lawmakers, parents, teachers, superintendents and activists have debated aspects of the 144-page bill. Critics took aim at bill’s voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, which will funnel money out of public schools, while supporters have said school choice will empower parents.
For more than 90 minutes of debate Thursday, lawmakers took turns speaking for and against the legislation.
Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, gave an impassioned 15-minute speech against the bill, admitting it was hard as a Republican to take such a strong stance against Sanders' signature issue, saying “I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness.”
Wooten said the bill is an “insult” to public education, saying critics of Arkansas' public schools did not understand social ills such as poverty, drug addiction and broken families that affect public schools, which, unlike private schools, cannot screen or turn away students.
“Through this this bill we have managed to insult, alienate, dislike, show disdain for every single person in this state that has anything to do with public education,” Wooten said.
Supporters of the bill said it is a fix to the status quo in Arkansas that is failing students, noting that the state has ranked near the bottom in education for years.
Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, said the bill was a part of American tradition that emphasizes “individual liberty,” empowering parents to decide what is best for their children.
Other supporters said the bill’s funding for literacy coaches and tutors, and higher salaries for teachers, will facilitate a long-need fundamental change that will drastically improve education within the state.
“What in the world is so terrible about parents getting to choose the school where their children attend and allowing the tax dollars to follow the student to that school?” Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, asked.
The LEARNS Act will increase the state’s minimum salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000 and give $2,000 raises for teachers making more than the new proposed minimum. Teachers also could receive up to $10,000 in bonuses for high tests scores, or teaching in a geographical area or a subject matter in high demand.
According to the bill, the voucher program will be phased in over three years beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, with students receiving 90% of foundation funding from the previous school year, which was $7,413 for the 2022-2023 school year.