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Arkansas House votes to advance LEARNS bill after debate cut short

Arkansas House.jpg
Arkansas House
Arkansas House
The Arkansas House of Representatives has voted to advance the omnibus education package known as the LEARNS Act.

After hours of debate in committee, Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, presented the Arkansas LEARNS bill for passage to his fellow House members on Thursday.

LEARNS is the name given to a 144-page omnibus education package championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Supporters and detractors of the bill spoke until Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, ended debate prematurely.

During his bill presentation, Brooks hit upon familiar talking points like Arkansas’ low national rankings for education and literacy. Brooks said the bill was student-centric.

“We must look our collective selves in the mirror and agree that on too many levels what we have done has not produced the results that our kids desperately deserve,” he said.

Brooks, the bill's primary co-sponsor in the House, said the teacher pay raises included in the bill will have “life-changing” impacts on the lives of educators. He returned to his seat in the middle of questioning from fellow lawmakers.

Rep. Tara Shephard, D-Little Rock, referenced her time working in the Little Rock School District during a state takeover in speaking against the bill.

“The test scores were lower,” she said. “Student achievement went down, because of this bold action that the State of Arkansas took against the Little Rock School District.”

She said too many questions about LEARNS were left unanswered from the committee meetings.

“What is the rush?” Shephard asked, echoing criticisms that the bill moved through the legislature too quickly.

Republicans who supported the bill stressed the importance of embracing change and improving Arkansas' low literacy rates. Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, said he was excited about passing the bill. He spoke about his belief in the importance of individual freedom promoted by the bill’s provisions.

“Empower people to make decisions in their best interest. It raises everyone because it encourages innovation and ingenuity,” he said.

Rep. Joy Springer, D-Little Rock, said she did not like the bill when she read it.

“I immediately concluded that there were scores of language in that bill that were unclear and ambiguous and vague,” she said, concluding that the bill showed “discriminatory intent.”

Springer asked several rhetorical questions, wondering who would monitor the implementation of the bill. Republicans who crafted LEARNS, like Russellville Sen. Breanne Davis, have claimed the bill took two years to put together. Springer wondered if this was true.

“Where is the qualitative and quantitative data from those meetings that were held two years ago?”

Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, gave an impassioned speech against the bill. He said he had been up for several nights thinking and praying about his vote. He said he supported increasing teacher pay, but felt the bill hurt public school teachers.

“I have received over 125 emails telling me, 'I’m a teacher. I’m a veteran teacher. I’m a young teacher,'” he said, explaining all these educators were asking him to vote no.

Wooten had previously put forth bills to force private schools that receive public funds to administer state tests and offer public transportation. He took issue with the fact that private schools could potentially use vouchers to remove good athletes from public schools.

“This bill will come back to haunt you,” he said.

In explaining why she would vote no, Rep. Hope Hendren Duke, R-Gravette, held back tears. She said the biggest issue for her was the “financial piece.”

“For me to vote yes on this bill would go against everything that I stood for before I came down here,” she said, explaining that most of her constituents did not support the legislation. Duke said she ultimately wanted the bill to be successful.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, gave a long speech explaining her problems with the bill. She said she didn't like how few teachers were included in discussions about LEARNS. She repeated concerns that struggling school districts could face state takeovers by private and charter schools. Flowers said she wanted more money to go toward social programs like universal pre-K, not voucher programs which lacked financial caps.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, clapped back at criticisms from Democrats that state dollars should go towards expanding public services.

“If money alone was going to solve our problems, then education would have been solved long ago," Ray said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill but also the process by which it had moved through the legislature.

“Is this how we make our laws now,” she asked. “Behind closed doors, weeks of delays, fights with educators on social media?"

Rep. Aaron Pilkington ultimately made a motion to end debate which passed 63 to 28.

The LEARNS bill then advanced from the House on a vote of 78 to 21 with three Republicans voting against it. It goes back to the Senate for a final vote before going to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for a signature.

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