Senate approves Sanders' LEARNS Act

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 www.arkansasonline.com/33learns/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

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 the bill, 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 had to vote on the bill again to concur with an amendment the House made last week.

“I’m deeply grateful for the legislators who worked around the clock to pass Arkansas LEARNS by massive margins: 78-21 in the House and 26-8 in the Senate. I’m ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long," Sanders said in a released statement shortly after the bill passed. 

Senate Bill 294 is Sanders’ 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, which would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance. 

The bill passed the House and Senate with the emergency clause, which means it can take effect immediately. 

"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," Sanders' statement said. "Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas.”

The bill’s voucher program, called Educational Savings Accounts, would tie education funding to students, giving them 90% of what schools get per student from the previous school year to attend a private or home school, which would amount to $6,672. 

Sanders' 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.

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.