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Arkansas lawmakers send sweeping education bill to governor’s desk

Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville), gives a thumbs-up after the Senate passes SB 294 on Feb. 23, as Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) looks on.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville), gives a thumbs-up after the Senate passes SB 294 on Feb. 23, as Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) looks on.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will sign her signature education package into law Wednesday, two weeks after the bill was filed.

The Arkansas Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, on Tuesday.

“I’m ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long,” Sanders said in a statement. “Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas.”

The LEARNS Act makes sweeping changes to the state’s education system by addressing a variety of topics, including teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, a new voucher program and “indoctrination.”

Because SB 294 contains an emergency clause, the majority of the provisions will go into effect as soon as it’s signed into law. A few provisions will be implemented later this year.

The repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act will be effective June 30, while funds to support the bill’s initiatives, like an increase to teacher minimum salaries, become available July 1.

The Senate first passed the legislation on Feb. 23, but because the bill was amended in the House, the Senate had to concur with the amendment.

The Senate approved the amended version of the bill by a vote of 26-8 on Tuesday. Republican Sens. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) and Bryan King (R-Green Forest) joined all six Democrats in voting against the amended bill.

Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said in addition to technical corrections, there are three major changes to SB 294.

The six-page amendment clarifies an employee’s right to a notification of termination and a hearing, permits school safety plans to be discussed in executive session so they’re not subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, and requires districts to adopt salary schedules in order to receive state funding to implement the teacher minimum base salary.

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said the amendments made it a better bill, but there are still elements she cannot support.

Likewise, Sen. Fred Love (D-Mabelvale) said while the bill has good provisions, like raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, he was concerned about the impacts of the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program.

The program 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, tutoring and homeschool costs.

Using vouchers for school choice is not new, Love said, pointing to their use following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that led to the desegregation of schools in the U.S. Love said while it may not have been the intent, the result of vouchers was the segregation of schools.

“I do not want to go back there,” Love said. “I’m pretty sure that none of us want to go back there, but it is my job as a state senator to ring the alarm when I see something going wrong. And I would say that this bill is heading us in the wrong direction.”

Speaking for the bill, Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) said it is “in direct response” to the state’s teacher shortage, an issue she said was discussed often during her time on the Senate Education Committee.

“How is it a direct response? Because you’re raising the base minimum, you’re attracting more to the profession, you have the state teacher education program with loan forgiveness in critical shortage areas,” Irvin said. “That’s exactly what we heard over and over and over again for the past two years.”

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.