Arkansas Senate approves Sanders' LEARNS Act

Major education overhaul headed to governor’s desk

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (center) and Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva (right) answer questions about the education bill following Sanders speech to homeschoolers on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (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.

The Senate Education Committee on Monday approved the amended bill.

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, chair of the Senate Education Committee, limited discussion during Monday's hearing. A group of students from Little Rock Central High School had signed up to speak, but English interrupted each student and limited the discussion to only the bill's amendment, not the bill, citing Senate rules.

While each student attempted to adapt their comments to speak on the amendment, English interrupted each one, perceiving their comments as criticism of the legislation as a whole and not the amendment, which consists mostly of technical corrections.

More than 1,000 students from Little Rock Central High School walked out of class last week in protest of Sanders' education overhaul, directing much of their criticism at the bill's voucher program. In a letter signed by 1,698 students, alumni, parents and staff, a group of Central High School students wrote it would amount to "siphoning funds and resources away from public education and into the private sector."

"Sarah Huckabee Sanders' LEARNS bill will usher in a new era of segregation in Arkansas, where middle and upper class white families take resources from public schools to escape to private ones, leaving marginalized kids with crumbling facilities, an antiquated curriculum, and teachers who are forced to prioritize their job security over the quality of their instruction," according to the letter written by Little Rock Central High School students Bekah Jackson, Gryffyn May, Addison McCuien and Ernest Quirk.

Much of the criticism around the LEARNS Act has been directed at what some have perceived to be a rushed process. Lawmakers introduced the bill Feb. 20 and held a hearing 40 hours later. The following day, the Senate approved the bill, with much of the debate centered on what some felt was a rushed process.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock had frustrations about the process that came out during Monday's hearing, as she made a comment while Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill's sponsor, was answering a question from Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, about how the Department of Education will develop rules to enforce the LEARNS Act.

Courtney Salas-Ford, chief legal counsel for the Department of Education, said the agency will hold meetings with working groups that will include the public's input as it works on rules to enforce myriad provisions in the LEARNS Act. Davis said "no one wants a working group of yes people," prompting a comment from Chesterfield that what Hammer said was "below the standards" of the Senate.

"It was incredulous that we would talk about inclusion, because this whole process has been one big round of democratic dis-inclusion, if there is such a term," Chesterfield said. "So you'll excuse me if I was just incredulous that suddenly we decided that everybody's going to be involved in this process, because certainly everybody was not."

photo 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. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
photo Members of the student body at Little Rock Central High School walk out in protest of the omnibus education bill supported by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday, March 3, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)