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Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs Arkansas LEARNS bill into law, students protest

Josie Lenroa
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs the Arkansas LEARNS bill into law at the State Capitol rotunda surrounded by students from Calvary Academy in North Little Rock.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her sweeping education bill into law Wednesday.

The governor was surrounded by students from Calvary Academy, a private religious school in North Little Rock, as she signed the Arkansas LEARNS bill into law. LEARNS is a 144-page packet of sweeping legislation which, among many things, would give parents money to enroll their children in private schools, ban critical race theory, and give teachers a minimum salary of $50,000.

The governor was also joined by Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, and Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, the bill's primary co-sponsors who were responsible for quickly shepherding the bill through the legislature in slightly over two weeks.

Josie Lenora
Two students deliver a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders protesting the LEARNS bill.

During her speech, the governor reiterated familiar “school choice” talking points.

“Under Arkansas' current system, a family's ZIP code is often the only thing that determines whether their kids will get the education they need to succeed,” she said.

Sanders insisted the law will go on to strengthen public education. She said this is backed up by research.

“Most families end up staying in their local school district,” she said. “But when parents are empowered to choose, all schools work harder to attract students. Competition breeds excellence.”

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva told reporters he wants to roll out the provisions in the bill as soon as possible.

“We would want to get some of these early provisions in place well before the summer starts,” he said. “Families are making decisions now. We want to empower them to make the best choice for them.”

Later in the day, students from across Arkansas protested the law on the Capitol steps. Addison McCuien, a junior at Little Rock Central High School, joined a fellow student in delivering a letter to the governor's office voicing their opposition to the bill. She said delivering the letter felt “powerful.”

Josie Lenora
Students and Teachers protest the LEARNS bill in front of the Arkansas Capitol.

“I want her to hear our voices,” McCuien said.

She was upset with the way Gov. Sanders mentioned being a graduate of Central in her speeches.

“So many students at Central High School do not believe in her messages,” McCuien said. “We don't want Central High School's legacy to be used in support of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' ideals and beliefs.”

Student speakers at the protest said they felt the bill could harm public schools by funneling state funds into private education. Students also opposed language in the bill banning critical race theory.

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