Public Radio from UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Arkansas LEARNS amendment faces shortened debate in Senate committee

Arkansas Legislature
Republican Sen. Breanne Davis and Courtney Salas-Ford, chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, explain the Arkansas LEARNS amendment to the Senate Education committee.

An amendment to the large package of education legislation, also called Arkansas LEARNS, was debated by members of the Arkansas Senate Education Committee Monday.

Republican Sen. Breanne Davis presented the amendment to the committee, which adds technical corrections to the 144-page education bill.

“There will be an employee's right to a notice for termination,” she said. The bill repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act which many educators worried could result in a lack of due process for educators facing termination.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a former teacher, pushed back against the amendment.

“We used to have what we call ‘just cause’ in the law,” she said, explaining how districts used to need a “good reason” to fire a teacher. “And yet we have struck just cause from the bill.”

Courtney Salas-Ford, chief counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, explained that teachers have to be provided a “nondiscriminatory reason” for termination that superintendents will recommend to the school board.

Chesterfield worried this could create an inconsistent standard of termination for different school districts.

The amendment also requires districts to adopt a salary schedule based on teachers' years of experience and academic qualifications.

“We wanted to put that in there to provide that level of comfort,” Davis said.

The bill does not specify the amount of money that has to be increased each year.

“And so, it could range from $5 for credit hours to $500 depending on the wealth of the districts,” Chesterfield asked.

Davis responded by explaining that schools have to post teacher salaries on their website “for transparency.”

“And then they can ask questions of their local district and their school board of why they are not spending more money on teacher salary,” Davis explained.

“And we have come to believe they will be more responsive to what we say than the legislature is,” Chesterfield said. “I rest my case.”

Davis and Salas-Ford explained to republican Sen. Kim Hammer how they planned for the implementation of the bill to include working groups involved in the rule-making process. They also wanted the working groups to be available to public comment.

“No one wants a working group of yes people,” Davis said. Chesterfield responded with an inaudible comment and was chastised by Hammer.

“Rude interruptions such as what just happened right there, I think, is below the standard of the way we as a Senate are expected to conduct ourselves in public,” Hammer said.

Chesterfield agreed that she had violated the rules of procedure, but said that her reaction was justified.

“It is incredulous that we would talk about inclusion,” she explained. “Because this whole process has been one big round of democratic dis-inclusion. So, you will excuse me if I was just incredulous that suddenly we just decided that everyone was going to be involved in this process.”

She said the fact that Democrats were left out of writing the bill was a “thorn in her flesh.”

Several students from the Little Rock School District came to speak against the bill. Every speaker was made to stop talking by the committee chair, Republican Sen. Jane English, who said their comments were not specific enough to the amendment. Blanche Finzer, a sophomore at Little Rock Central High School, testified after several other students. She tailored her testimony to be specific to the amendment.

“You're just nitpicking specific lines,” she said. “For example, 'On page 12 line 8 delete 'and.'' what is that going to do for us? How is that going to solve anything?”

Windsor made a comment about the lack of help for students in foster care, but was cut off by Sen. English, who said she was off-topic. Windsor was followed by several more students who were all interrupted.

Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland gave the final public comment, where she said the amendment did not do enough to protect teachers.

“The way that you all are treating these students who have shown up to participate in the legislative process by pointing out things that are not in the amendment but should be, which is speaking on the amendment, is so disappointing,” she said, “Believe me, you are giving them much more of a platform than if you had just listened to their criticism of the amendment.”

The amendment passed the committee. Before being signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders's, the bill will go back to the full Senate for a vote.

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