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Arkansas education bill approved by Senate after emotional debate

Chris Hickey
Arkansas Senators on Thursday debated the hurried process of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education reform package, which is quickly making its way through the legislature.

The Arkansas Senate advanced Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' omnibus education legislation Thursday. The bill passed by a vote of 25 to 7 with Sen. Jimmy Hickey the only Republican to join Democrats in voting against it.

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, presented the wide-ranging education bill to lawmakers. Among many provisions in the bill, it would usher in a new era of school choice voucher programs in Arkansas, repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and raise teacher starting salaries. Davis said the law was designed to support teachers and students.

“The priority of this legislation is straightforward, the students of Arkansas,” she said. “They are the future of our state and we believe every child should have access to quality education that fits their educational journey.”

She talked about the parts of the bill to raise teacher starting salaries to $50,000 a year, and measures in the bill to help repay student loans.

“This is real money that we are talking about,” she said.

Davis also spoke fondly of the literacy coaches the bill would create and deploy statewide, as well as the dual degree program included in the bill.

Echoing the sentiments of her Republican colleagues and the governor, Davis explained her support for the bill's school choice provisions.

“It's about time we empower parents to choose how their children are educated in Arkansas,” she said.

The bill contains an “educational freedom account” which will be phased in over three years and will give families state money to enroll their children in private schools.

While answering questions from Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, Davis explained that the bill removes the cap on the number of students who can go to a public school in a different district. In addition, she said the bill allows schools to contract with a charter school or third party if under threat of a state takeover.

Other senators expressed dismay over how quickly the bill was moving through the legislature. The bill is 144 pages, covers many topics, and was first made public late Monday.

“If you know me, I do not like things rushed through,” said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.

Davis responded by explaining that the bill had followed “the normal legislative process.”

“I disagree with that,” said Sen. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, when he rose to ask a question. “We have never taken and put this many important topics into one piece of legislation, and voted on it as one vote.” He pointed out how the bill had been filed 24 hours before it went to committee.

“That’s not normal, Sen. Davis,” he said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill. She opened by quoting the Serenity Prayer.

“I know I can not change the votes of the people in this room,” she said. “But I will be remiss if I did not say process matters, and that each person in this room represents approximately 90,000 people, and we should all be treated with the dignity and respect that comes with membership in this body. And I say to you today, that has not happened.”

Chesterfield said she, and members of the public, had only been given a few days to read the bill before it went to committee.

But Chesterfield said she supported many items in the bill such as pre-K expansion, which she had met with Gov. Sanders to talk about.

“She not only listened to me, she heard me, and put some things that are very important to me in this bill.”

Chesterfield railed against overturning the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and said she did not like how the bill gives money to private schools which do not have the same regulations as public schools. She expressed her wish that the bill did not do away with the salary schedule, which gives teachers more money based on their years of experience.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, responded to Chesterfield by explaining that districts will make their own choice to add a salary schedule.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, the one Republican to vote against the bill, said he could support it but had not been given the time to read the full text.

“There is not a person in here who does not think we are going to pass the full education bill,” he said, explaining he wanted more time to craft amendments.

“There is a policy thing in here I would like changed for more accountability,” he said, explaining that he wanted private schools receiving public money to have some oversight.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, voted present for the bill. He said he was disappointed in how hastily it was being rushed through the legislature, and wanted to talk more with teachers and lawmakers about the bill itself.

“I've learned to respect this process,” he said. “My friends and my opponents find things that make my bill better.”

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he supports many things in the bill but ultimately could not vote for it. He said poverty was the root cause of failing education and that Arkansas has done enough to create school choice programs. He asked the body to think about the many teachers who came to the Capitol to protest the legislation.

“These public servants who are heroes in my eyes have shown up to argue against their own raises because they think that's what's in the best interests of their students,” Tucker said.

Sen. Flowers gave the final speech against the bill.

“I’m pretty bitter,” she said. “I don't feel very much a part of this body,” adding that she didn't feel like she or her constituents were heard in the Senate.

Flowers became emotional when talking about being a student at the segregated Pine Bluff High School, and how her son later graduated from the same high school.

“Everywhere in my district kids are neglected,” she said. “And y'all sit up there and write these laws tearing up my community. And what's going to happen to my district down there in Pine Bluff?”

The bill now goes to a House committee for consideration.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.