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Advocacy groups discuss criticisms of Arkansas education package

Josie Lenora
Spokespeople from the Arkansas Education Association, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Disability Rights Arkansas gathered Monday to oppose Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' omnibus education reform bill.

Spokespeople from the Arkansas Education Association, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Disability Rights Arkansas are expressing their concerns over Senate Bill 294.

The bill is a thick piece of omnibus legislation that is being championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. For its size, the bill is moving through the legislature at a rapid pace, having first been released last week and going to a House Committee on Tuesday.

The bill has provisions for “educational freedom accounts,” public money given to financially needy families to enroll their children in private schools.

Carol Fleming is the president of the Arkansas Education Association, and worked as an educator herself.

“It's important to note what we do have in every ZIP code in Arkansas is a public school,” she said. “What we don't have in every ZIP code is a school where every child can use a voucher.”

Fleming said Monday she has been trying to get a hold of the governor and bill sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, to talk about the legislation. She claims there has been a reluctance on the part of both of them to meet with her by putting her in scheduling queues and sending auto-reply emails.

Fleming had several concerns about the bill. Among them was the lack of a pay increase for veteran educators and the lack of pay increases for special education teachers and support staff.

Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said he felt the bill opened up public schools to private control.

“I think what this bill really is, is a public school privatization bill,” he said. “And we should peel out the parts around public education and run a separate improving public education bill."

The bill would allow struggling public schools to opt into a charter school takeover if they are academically struggling.

“There's zero evidence that these kinds of contracts with private outside entities improve student performance,” Kopsky said. He predicted that hundreds of schools could face state takeovers if the bill went into effect.

One of his chief concerns was the lack of long-term cost projections years into the future. He worried funding for the education freedom accounts was not clearly allocated five years down the line.

“The legislature is signing onto a 30-year mortgage,” he said.

Kopsky supported many things in the bill like maternity leave and expanding early childhood education but worried there wasn't enough funding for non-voucher projects.

“There is not enough money left over after they've squandered the money that could be spent on something proven, on the vouchers.”

Olivia Gardner with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families echoed his sentiment.

“There is no money in this bill for increasing access and affordability for early childhood education,” she said. “There is nothing in this bill which supports early childhood education workforce.”

Tom Masseau of Disability Rights Arkansas went through a list of concerns he had over disabled students in Arkansas schools. The bill has large provisions for creating more School Resource Officers, but Masseau said these officers may lack mental health training.

He said many students may not be able to attend private schools because they lack the resources to take care of certain students.

“For many families whose child has a disability, they have to decide whether they should put them in a school without the support they need,” he said, “Or put them in a school with no support.”

Supporters of school choice programs say that by giving students public money to enroll in private schools, they are giving students the opportunity to attend a school fitted to their needs regardless of income.

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