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Sanders signs Arkansas LEARNS bill into law

by Neal Earley | March 9, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signs the Arkansas LEARNS Act at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her education bill into law Wednesday afternoon, calling it "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history."

During a ceremony in the second-floor rotunda at the State Capitol, the Republican governor described her education reform -- a 145-page omnibus law that covered everything from school vouchers, to teachers raises and higher literacy standards for elementary students -- as "a comprehensive approach to all education, from cradle to career."

"We've seen how status quo condemns Arkansans to a lifetime of poverty, and we're tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings," Sanders said. "We know that if we don't plant this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line."

Sanders declined to take questions from reporters after the bill signing.

The law, also known as the LEARNS Act, has been the top priority for Sanders since taking office in January. The bill includes 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 makes it easier for school districts to fire teachers because of poor performance.

The voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, will allow students to use state education dollars to attend a private or home school of their choice.

The bill also includes raises for educators. Teachers making more than the new state minimum of $50,000 a year will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach subject matter or in a geographic area that are in high demand.

The bill passed the House and Senate with an emergency clause, which means it can take effect immediately. For three weeks, the bill quickly made its was through the Legislature with complaints from some, including supporters, that the process to pass the bill was rushed.

Sanders noted Wednesday that the bill passed only two months after she took office in January.

The Arkansas Senate approved the education overhaul Tuesday, sending the bill to the governor's desk for her signature Wednesday.

The Senate voted 26-8 to approve Senate Bill 294, 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 voted on the bill again Tuesday to concur with an amendment the House made last week.

The Educational Freedom Account will be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. Students who are enrolled at F-rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who have an active-duty military parent would be given first priority.

In the following school year, students who are enrolled in a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of first-responders will become eligible for an Educational Freedom Account. By the 2025-2026 school year, every student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school.

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.

"This bill was pushed through the Legislature at an unprecedented speed and our children are going to suffer because of it," said Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, in a news release Tuesday. "The law will weaken our public schools and unfairly increase disparities between rural and urban districts. We tried to warn our legislators about the impacts this overhaul would have on our children but they did not listen."

In her closing remarks Tuesday, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russelville, rejected the idea that developing the bill was rushed and did not include enough voices from outside the Legislature.

"Hundreds of people and thousands of hours went into writing this bill," Davis said. "This is the most collaborative and comprehensive process that I have been part of, and this is just the beginning of the work."

The total cost of the LEARNS Act will be $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that coming in the form of new spending, according to a fiscal analysis by the Arkansas Department of Education.

In the second year, as more students become eligible for the state's school voucher program, the cost would increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.

The increased pay for teachers will cost the state $180 million each year, according to the Department of Education. The Educational Freedom Accounts will cost $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 in the second year. In the third year, Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration, said the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million.

Two Republican, Senators Jimmy Hickey Jr., of Texarkana and Bryan King of Green Forrest, along with the six Democrats voted against the bill. King said he voted against the bill because of a concern over its "long-term costs."

photo Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' speaks at her signing of the Arkansas LEARNS Act at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. On her right is state Secretary of the Department of Education Jacob Oliva, who also spoke at the signing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Print Headline: Sanders signs Arkansas LEARNS bill into law


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