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Arkansas governor’s education package advances to Senate

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John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Breanne Davis, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, looks at Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, as he answers questions about the bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning in Little Rock.

The Senate Education Committee after more than five hours of testimony Wednesday approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ sweeping education plan over bipartisan calls for amendments.

Dozens of teachers, students, parents and administrator groups testified at the occasionally tense hearing.

Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, is the culmination of Sanders’ chief priority to make wide-ranging changes to the state’s education system. The legislation covers teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, “indoctrination” and a variety of other topics.

Bill sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) called the bill a historic investment in Arkansas’ education system.

“We believe that every child should have access to a quality education that fits their educational journey,” Davis said. “We will no longer be defenders of the status quo. We have been failing our children for far too long.”

The 144-page bill was made public just before 5 p.m. Monday, allowing about 40 hours to read through its contents before the committee’s 9 a.m. Wednesday meeting.

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John Sykes
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Arkansas Advocate
Spectators erupt in applause while listening to a speaker opposing Senate Bill 294 during a meeting of the senate education committee in Little Rock. SB 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, was before the committee. The committee chair warned attendees that they would be forced to leave the meeting if they interrupted again.

Lawmakers and members of the public criticized the limited time to process the bill and requested more time to digest it before the committee voted.

Ultimately, the bill passed on a split voice vote despite staunch opposition from public school teachers and administrators. The committee’s two Democrats, Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) and Vice Chair Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), were the sole audible dissenters.

However, the bill the committee advanced to the Senate floor isn’t expected to be the final version enacted into law. At the request of several lawmakers, Davis pledged to amend the legislation once it moves to the state House of Representatives.

Davis said she would prefer to craft a single amendment with all the suggested changes in the House instead of following Leding’s suggestion to clean up the bill in the Senate.

Crafting the bill was “the most collaborative, comprehensive partnership” Davis said she’d been part of since her election to the Senate in 2018.

Chesterfield thanked the governor and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva for treating her “with dignity and respect” as they worked on the bill and for including items she’s advocated for, like teacher raises.

But Chesterfield said she felt “totally disrespected” by the lack of inclusion of Senate Democrats in the distribution of an advance copy of the bill last week. The committee vice chair said she wanted more time to read through the bill and speak with constituents.

“We were not afforded that opportunity by the members of this body and that is profoundly egregious, I do believe, to this process because everybody here should have a voice in what is the most profoundly unique approach to education that we’ve seen in some time,” Chesterfield said.

Supporters of the bill said it puts the focus on students and meeting them and their needs where they are. Oliva said the bill reclaims the moral high ground.

“We have to make sure that when we take that moral high ground that it’s focused on what’s right for students,” he said. “And every piece of this legislation that is being presented for this committee to consider moving forward started with that foundation of: ‘How do we make sure what we are doing focuses on students and improving the outcomes for what we want to see in this state?’”

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John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Greg Leding asks a question of Sen. Breanne Davis, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, during a meeting of the senate education committee Wednesday morning in Little Rock.

Opponents of the bill complained that it combines multiple issues into a single piece of legislation, making it difficult to support the bill in its totality.

“I do like probably 60% to 70% of it, but as I’ve told a lot of people, if the last 30% of the cheeseburger still poisons you, it’s still a pretty lousy cheeseburger,” Leding said.

While many speakers praised raising the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000, they voiced concern about eliminating the state’s mandatory teacher salary schedule to reward more experienced teachers, as well as the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

Speakers also addressed concerns about the creation of a voucher program, called the “Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program,” diverting funds away from public schools.

Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) listed several changes he wanted made. He agreed to allow the House to address the amendments and noted this was an opportunity for the administration to build trust between the House and Senate.

“If these things are not addressed, and if some of these critical things like the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act are not included in that, it is going to be a long future as far as that trust having been violated,” Hammer said.

SB 294 is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate Thursday.

School personnel

There’s broad support for the bill’s proposal to raise the state’s base teacher salary by $14,000. The legislation would also require that each teacher — even those earning more than the minimum — receive a $2,000 pay raise next school year.

However, several people expressed concern Wednesday about eliminating the minimum teacher salary schedule, which sets minimum pay guidelines for teachers based on their years of experience and educational attainment.

Chesterfield said eliminating the salary schedule “puts a chilling effect on collaboration” because veteran teachers may only make $2,000 more than a new teacher.

Fayetteville and Springdale are the only two school districts that currently have a starting pay of $50,000, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

Oliva said school districts have the freedom to set their own teacher salary schedules.

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John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Breanne Davis, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, share a laugh before a meeting of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning in Little Rock.

“That’s opportunity for us to have conversations with the elected officials that represent that district that approve their local budget,” he said. “And if those elected officials aren’t being held accountable to make sure they recognize and reward the talent in their school district, then shame on them.”

The LEARNS Act also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which garnered much opposition from people like Roy Vaughn, a 19-year educator who said the policy is needed to protect teachers from being fired for issues like a personality conflict with a supervisor.

“Teacher Fair Dismissal is one of the single most important parts of this bill and it’s literally taken out at every level…you guys have got to stand up and say teachers deserve a safety net,” Vaughn said.

Under the Fair Dismissal law, teachers must be notified by May 1 whether or not the district plans to rehire them. If teachers are dismissed, they are entitled to a written statement of the reasons why their contract is not being renewed, and they have an opportunity to appeal their termination to the school board.

Eliminating Teacher Fair Dismissal was the number one thing requested by superintendents because “they cannot get teachers out of the classroom that should not be in the classroom because of that,” Davis said.

Teachers will still have due process and be afforded a hearing in front of the school board if fired, she said. The standards of ineffectiveness for which an employee is fired will be determined at the local level, Oliva said.

Vouchers

One of the most controversial portions of the bill would create a program that would offer families money that could be used as private school vouchers or on other education costs, like homeschool expenses, supplies or tutoring.

Supporters of these programs believe they give families more options that may be better tailored to their students.

Opponents, though, hold that public education dollars should not go to private institutions with different levels of accountability and standards, worrying also about the impact of lost funding on public school districts.

Davis admonished certain interest groups and the news media for spreading misinformation about the bill.

“Please hear me loud and clear, this is a public education bill,” she said, later adding that “it is about time we empower parents to choose how their children are educated and not put a one-size-fits-all approach on every student.”

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Antoinette Grajeda
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Arkansas Advocate
Barry Jefferson, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, spoke against the Education Freedom Account proposal during a committee meeting on Feb. 22, 2023.

Many of the several dozen Arkansans who testified Wednesday focused on the Education Freedom Account program.

Barry Jefferson, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, said he agreed with many of the proposals in the bill, but he opposed the EFA proposal.

“When you start taking funding away from schools, I have an issue with it,” he said. “Voucher programs do not work.”

Several parents of students with developmental or learning disabilities spoke in support of the legislation. They told similar stories about their children struggling in public schools. Instead, they said their children enjoyed greater success in other settings, such as a homeschool cooperative or a private school that specializes in educating children with special needs.

Parent Jennifer Hood said her local public school was not equipped to educate her son with autism.

“I was at a loss at what to do. Like, ‘What am I going to do with him?'” she said. “I found a private school that basically serves children with autism. My son got to go on a field trip for the first time a few weeks ago, and I’m so grateful for that.”

The Education Freedom Account program will be phased in over the next three years, and once fully implemented in 2025, would be one of the most robust voucher programs in the U.S.

It proposes providing families state funds of up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate (currently about $6,671) for use on allowable education expenses.

For the 2023-2024 school year, qualifying expenses are: tuition, fees, testing, school supplies and uniforms.

In 2024-2025, qualifying expenses expand to include tutoring, curriculum, course fees, college admission exams and other nontraditional education expenses.

The first students eligible for the program next school year will be those with disabilities, homeless students, foster children, children of active military members, students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or a school in need of Level 5 support, and students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.

First-year participation in the program is capped at 1.5% of the current total public school enrollment in the state, or 7,148 students next year.

The following year, student eligibility will expand to include those at “D”-rated schools and children of veterans, military reservists or first responders. Program participation will be capped at 3% of the current total public school enrollment.

In 2025-2026, all students will be eligible to participate in the program, and there will be no caps on participation so long as the program is fully funded.

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John Sykes
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Arkansas Advocate
Dr. Steve McKee discusses his concerns about Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, during a meeting of the senate education committee Wednesday morning in Little Rock.

The bill requires random annual audits of individual accounts and participating schools, and requires participating schools to administer an annual, state Board of Education-approved assessment.

Arkansas currently has two voucher programs.

The Succeed Scholarship Program provides about $7,400 for private tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families.

The program has about $6.3 million in funding for fiscal 2023, which began July 1.

The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program provides private-school scholarships for students whose families make no more than 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,000 a year for a family of four in Arkansas).

The scholarships are funded by tax-deductible contributions from business and individuals. The program is capped at $2 million.

Cost

The Arkansas Department of Education estimates the legislation will cost $297 million in the first year and $343 million in the second year of implementation.

By fiscal 2025, the plan will require $250 million in new state spending, according to the department’s projections. The state already spends over $2 billion annually on public education.

Though the bill won’t be fully implemented for three years or more, most of the spending projections were for the next two years because the state runs on a two-year budget cycle.

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John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
Chad Hall, an opponent of Senate Bill 294, addresses his remarks to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Breanne Davis, foreground, during a meeting of the senate education committee Wednesday morning in Little Rock.

The most expensive portion of the plan is the teacher pay increase — roughly $180 million annually.

The next most expensive provision is the Education Freedom Account program, which will cost $46.7 million next year and $97.5 million the following year.

The Department of Education estimates that 14,000 students will participate in the EFA program in the first two years.

The program — which will be fully implemented in three years — is expected to grow to a cost of $175 million in 2026, budget officials said Wednesday.

Critical race theory

The LEARNS Act mirrors language from an executive order to prohibit teaching that “would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory.”

Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.

In response to Chesterfield’s request to define Critical Race Theory, Oliva said it’s difficult to come up with a single definition. This section of the bill is preventative in its intent and aims to ensure history is taught in a factual way where students are taught “how to think and not what to think,” he said.

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Antoinette Grajeda
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Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Greg Leding speaks to Sen. Linda Chesterfield prior to the start of a committee meeting on Feb. 22, 2023.

Students have the right to be taught history, and have critical conversations and debates, he said. However, a teacher should share multiple viewpoints, not just their personal beliefs, Oliva said.

When Chesterfield first became a teacher, she said, she was not allowed to discuss slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Chesterfield said she wanted to ensure teachers will not be fired for discussing sensitive topics like Jim Crow laws because it’s important for children to know that “the history of this country has been marred with racism, sexism” and the discrimination of Indigenous people.

“Not only should we teach those topics that are factual in history, it should be required,” Oliva responded. “And if those topics aren’t reflected in our standards, then that’s an opportunity for us as a state agency to ensure that every child is taught those topics when it’s in the appropriate course.”

SB294 requires the review of the Department of Education’s rules, policies, materials and communications to identify items that promote indoctrination. Oliva may amend, annul or alter anything that’s deemed prohibited.

The legislation also states this policy does not prohibit the discussion of public policy issues that some may find “unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.
Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.