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Arkansas LEARNS bill makes its way out of House committee

On Tuesday, representatives in the Arkansas House met to start the special session by reading Gov. Asa Hutchinson's call. The House and Senate voted to approved proposed tax cuts by the governor.
Arkansas House
Arkansas House of Representatives
Arkansas Republicans expressed mixed feelings about the LEARNS Act before voting to advance it Wednesday.

The education reform package moving through the Arkansas Legislature is one step closer to final approval Wednesday.

After two days of discussion and hours of public comment, members of the House Education committee voted to advance Senate Bill 294, also dubbed the LEARNS Act, to the House floor. Republicans supported the bill but individually expressed discomfort with certain parts of it, as well as the pace at which it was moving through the legislature.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, gave a closing pitch for the bill saying he thinks highly of the salary raises included in it.

“LEARNS has been a great conversation,” he said, explaining how he felt the bill was just the beginning of “putting students first” in education.

Fayetteville Democratic Rep. Denise Garner's criticism of the bill focused largely on how it would help support students with disabilities.

“If we are really interested in promoting education in Arkansas, we need to be doing what works,” Garner said, listing off services she felt the bill did not prioritize. “Universal pre-K, after-school, summer school, wrap-around services.”

Garner said she could not find any unbiased data proving the success of school voucher programs. She said, in her research, she could only find negative effects. Her comments were echoed by Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who said the bill did not focus on services proven to work in other states.

“There were very few, if any, education administrators who participated in the drafting of the bill,” she said. “That’s very problematic.”

“The fact that we are establishing a policy that doesn't feed into growth and invest in our public schools, but instead really leverages the negative rhetoric that has been spread all over Arkansas and our country. I think it does a disservice to our teachers and it certainly does a disservice to our children.”

Flowers also called the critical race theory ban in the bill was “erasing history.” She closed by explaining how grateful she was to listen to the dozens of people who came to speak who she said proved the bill has the wrong legislative priorities.

“Whatever happens, whatever our votes are, whatever happens in the future, we will not be able to say that we didn't know.”

Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, had previously expressed her concerns that LEARNS could hurt rural school districts that don’t have the money to pay the required salary increases. Before voting yes, she expressed her displeasure over the way teachers and superintendents had been treated as lawmakers debated the bill.

“They teach my kids, they love my kids. I would hate to think that we as legislators would dump on those that I consider to be heroes in my district,” Vaught said, her voice cracking while she explained her decision to vote yes.

“I have fears, I have doubts, I have questions. But I trust in the sponsor, that if there's problems with the bill and there's things that need to be changed, we’ll work together and make sure they get addressed at a very quick pace.”

Rep. Hope Duke, R-Gravette, a former school board member, also became emotional during her closing remarks.

“Teachers have their hair on fire,” she said, explaining she also didn’t like the maltreatment of teachers. Ultimately, Duke said she did not want to keep failing students in Arkansas.

“I’m trusting that we’re going to get this right.”

Several other Republican lawmakers began to echo the same sentiment. Reps. Grant Hodges, Bruce Cozart, Charlene Fite, John Maddox, Stetson Painter, and Brit McKenzie all expressed mixed feelings about the bill but said they would vote to pass it because they felt it contained good ideas.

“Most superintendents are really fearful,” said Cozart, expressing his hope the legislature could clean up the bill in the years to come.

The LEARNS Act now moves to the full House for a vote.

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