Arkansas House committee mulls education package after daylong meeting
House Education Committee members are taking the evening to consider everything they heard during about 10 hours of testimony Tuesday before voting on the governor’s education package Wednesday.
Committee chairman Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) said he was committed to allowing everyone to speak and asked lawmakers to listen with clear minds and open hearts.
Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, is the result of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ 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.
Committee members posed questions — several from constituents — to House sponsor Rep. Keith Brooks and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva for three hours Tuesday morning about a variety of topics, including the impact of teacher raises on rural school districts, accountability measures for private schools and the disparities that could grow between districts that can afford greater benefits, like higher teacher salaries and maternity leave, and those that cannot.
Under the LEARNS Act, the state would cover 50% of costs for schools that choose to provide up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.
Rep. Hope Duke (R-Gravette) said her constituents said the LEARNS Act feels like a “Washington-style” bill that’s big, broad and will cost a lot of money. They’re worried large legislation like this will become the norm in Arkansas, Duke said.
Brooks said Arkansas’ education issues are significant and SB 294 is a way to address primary concerns “in the most aggressive way.”
The 144-page bill was made public last Monday, about 40 hours before it was presented to the Senate Education Committee. The committee and full Senate both approved the LEARNS Act last week, despite bipartisan calls to slow the legislative process to better understand the bill and to allow time to file amendments in the Senate.
Senate sponsor Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said she preferred that a single amendment be filed in the House. Brooks filed a six-page amendment late Friday, which addressed some but not all of the issues lawmakers discussed last week.
One of the most contentious pieces of SB 294 is the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, a voucher program that would provide families state funds up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, like private school tuition, homeschool costs, tutoring, testing and more. The program will have limited enrollment in the first two years before expanding to all families in the third year.
Opponents of the program are opposed to sending state funds to private schools that are not held to the same standards as public schools.
A number of the people who spoke in favor of the bill during nearly seven hours of public testimony send their autistic children to private schools.
Tiffany Mott has two autistic sons in private school, and while she said accountability rules for private schools need to change, the proposed voucher system could be helpful to people like her.
“Families that attend private schools and other facilities are not all wealthy,” she said. “I can personally say my family has struggled to pay their tuition to try to make ends meet. Public school is not the best option for my children. They would not offer my children the interventions that are desperately needed.”
Several teachers and superintendents spoke against the bill, like Heath Bennett, Harmony Grove School District superintendent.
Bennett said the bill could be improved by ensuring it is fully funded for a long time “because as much as we want to educate every child, we have to have teachers.”
“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, either way, it’s about students in Arkansas,” Bennett said. “I don’t care who passes the bill, it’s about our kids.”
For some members of the public, the long day started with an 8 a.m. rally on the Capitol steps where attendees applauded Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe), a vocal opponent of vouchers, for his support of public schools.
Following the rally, Wooten told the Arkansas Advocate the bill should be divided into three parts — teacher pay, rules and regulations, and vouchers.
“That gives us an opportunity and a chance to be vocal, and then also to have an opportunity to vote on it in three sections, but they’re not going to do that,” Wooten said. “They’re going to force it through and ram it through just exactly like they’ve done.”
Wooten said he takes issue with SB 294 supporters who assert that funds aren’t being taken from public education because “they most definitely are” through the bill’s proposed Education Freedom Account program. Wooten said he intends to vote no on the LEARNS Act even though he said he’s been pressured to support the bill by other Republicans.
“I’m an old football coach and I’ve been kicked around on many a Friday night, so that doesn’t bother me,” Wooten said. “And the main thing is right’s right, and wrong’s wrong…somebody has to stand up for public schools, for the teachers, for the kids.”
Wooten filed two bills this session to increase accountability among private schools that accept state funds by requiring them to administer an annual statewide assessment test and provide transportation.
Public schools are not required to do either under current law; however, the LEARNS Act contains a provision that would require public schools that participate in the proposed Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program to administer an annual assessment.
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.
Lawmakers and superintendents expressed concern Tuesday that they don’t have more specifics about funding sources and sustainability for the bill’s mandates. Rep. Ron McNair (R-Harrison) said “it’s really scary” trying to plan a budget when you don’t know where the money’s coming from.
Brooks said funding is not being cut. The LEARNS Act would create a fund to help districts meet the $50,000 minimum teacher salary, Brooks said, and per-student funding is expected to increase based on recommendations from the House and Senate Education Committees last year as part of the biennial adequacy review process.
Those recommendations will be considered by legislators later this session, he said.
Speakers throughout the day said they were also worried about how many of the bill’s details are still unknown because several rules and regulations won’t be developed until after the legislation passes. Brooks and Oliva said they’re committed to ensuring that all stakeholders have a place at the table.
Oliva said the Arkansas Department of Education is currently building a website to house all the information about the LEARNS Act with the goal of having it ready by Spring Break so officials can gather feedback and start the rulemaking process.
Additionally, Oliva said they plan to meet with each of the state’s 15 education cooperatives and to discuss “the unique challenges” of their districts.
The Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, one of the more expensive parts of the bill, is expected to cost $46.7 million next year and $97.5 million the following year. 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 last week.
Increased accountability for private schools receiving state funds have been a point of contention for people opposed to the voucher program. At Tuesday’s meeting, Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) asked if private schools participating in the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program will be held to the same standards when it comes to students with disabilities.
Under current law, public schools must accept all students and provide special needs services. Private schools do not.
Brooks said the LEARNS Act does not make any changes to current law. The Republican lawmaker also said he would push back on the narrative that private schools don’t want to work with special needs students because in his experience he’s seen “a broad desire” to meet families’ needs.
Disability Rights Arkansas executive director Tom Masseau said during a press conference Monday that he’s concerned SB 294 doesn’t provide increased protections or funding for students receiving or who need special education services, despite an increased need for those services.
Masseau said there were more than 63,000 students with a disability receiving special education services in the state as of 2019, an 18% increase since 2013.
“There are no details as to the impact this reform would have on students with disabilities, and we are not aware of any conversations with stakeholders in the disability community,” Masseau said in a statement. “Once again, the disability community’s needs are ignored. We want a state where all are welcome and have the same opportunities not creating a state of class systems.”