The Arkansas Senate approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul Tuesday, sending the bill to the governor's desk for her signature.
The Senate voted 26-8 to approve the bill, also known as the LEARNS Act, after it was amended last week in the House of Representatives. While the Senate approved the bill Feb. 23, the chamber had vote on the bill again to concur with an amendment the House made last week.
"Arkansas LEARNS will raise teacher pay, empower parents, and give our students the skills to succeed in life. These changes can't come soon enough," Sanders said in a released statement shortly after the bill passed. "I'm deeply grateful for the legislators who worked around the clock to pass Arkansas LEARNS by massive margins: 78-21 in the House and 26-8 in the Senate. 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. Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas."
Senate Bill 294 is Sanders' signature education legislation that calls for school vouchers, a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers, a dual diploma for high school students learning a trade and a repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which would make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance. The bill passed the House and Senate with the emergency clause, which means it can take effect immediately.
The bill's voucher program, called Educational Savings Accounts, would tie education funding to students, giving them 90% of what schools get per student from the previous school year to attend a private or home school, which would amount to $6,672. Sanders' legislation also calls for a new minimum starting salary of $50,000 a year for teachers, which would rank Arkansas among the highest in the country for minimum teacher pay.
The bill was amended to add an "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before a teacher is terminated after the bill would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year. The amendment also calls for school districts to adopt a salary schedule for teachers and prevent school safety plans from being subject to public records requests.
7:55 a.m. Sanders' amended education bill heads back to full Senate for approval
The Senate Education Committee on Monday approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul in the penultimate move before its expected approval by the Legislature.
On a voice vote, the committee sent Sanders' education overhaul, also known as the LEARNS Act, back to the Senate for a final vote to concur with an amendment the House made to the bill.
If approved today by the Senate, the bill goes to the governor's desk for her signature. Sanders has indicated previously she is ready to sign the bill into law.
Sanders' education overhaul has come in the form of a 145-page omnibus bill that includes state funds that students could use to attend a private or home school and a $14,000 raise in the starting salary for teachers.
The bill would tie education funding to students, giving them 90% of what schools get per student from the previous school year to attend a private or home school, which would amount to $6,672. Sanders' legislation also calls for a new minimum starting salary of $50,000 a year for teachers, which would put Arkansas among the highest in the country for minimum teacher pay.
The bill was amended in the House last week to include an "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before a teacher is terminated after the bill would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a law that requires school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year. The amendment also calls for school districts to adopt a salary schedule for teachers and prevent school safety plans from being subject to public records requests.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, took issue with the amendment's language on teachers' salaries schedules and dismissal, saying the bill would undo statewide standards for both. The LEARNS Act would repeal the state's recommended salary schedule for teachers and instead require that individual school districts set their own pay scales.
The bill also calls for $2,000 raises for teachers making above the proposed new minimum and up to $10,000 bonuses for educators with high marks, or who are willing to teach in geographic areas or subject matters that are in high demand.
Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, chair of the Senate Education Committee, limited discussion during Monday's hearing. A group of students from Little Rock Central High School had signed up to speak, but English interrupted each student and limited the discussion to only the bill's amendment, not the bill, citing Senate rules.
While each student attempted to adapt their comments to speak on the amendment, English interrupted each one, perceiving their comments as criticism of the legislation as a whole and not the amendment, which consists mostly of technical corrections.
"It is so disappointing that the adults in this room are going to treat children who came to try to participate in this process in this way," Ali Noland, a member of the Little Rock School Board, told the committee. "By talking to them and cutting them off in this way, believe me, you are giving them much more of a platform than you would have if you had just listened to their criticism of the amendments in the first place."
Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said "joint rules of the House and Senate" barred lawmakers from considering anything other than the amendment.
"I want to thank all the students that came and participated in the process," Dotson said. "I understand that it's a frustrating thing to speak just on the amendment. That is all we are considering today, the amendment itself."
In a news release after the meeting, Micah Wallace, president of Young Democrats of Arkansas, called on English to hold a youth town-hall-style forum.
"These meetings have been wildly inaccessible to students in high school and college," Wallace said in a news release. "Still, Sen. English was militant in her demands that students could only speak 'on the amendment' and insistent, even when they were clearly speaking on the amendment, that they were not."
English did not return a call from the Democrat-Gazette to respond to the criticism of how she chaired the meeting.
More than 1,000 students from Little Rock Central High School walked out of class last week in protest of Sanders' education overhaul, directing much of their criticism at the bill's voucher program. In a letter signed by 1,698 students, alumni, parents and staff, a group of Central High School students wrote it would amount to "siphoning funds and resources away from public education and into the private sector."
"Sarah Huckabee Sanders' LEARNS bill will usher in a new era of segregation in Arkansas, where middle and upper class white families take resources from public schools to escape to private ones, leaving marginalized kids with crumbling facilities, an antiquated curriculum, and teachers who are forced to prioritize their job security over the quality of their instruction," according to the letter written by Little Rock Central High School students Bekah Jackson, Gryffyn May, Addison McCuien and Ernest Quirk.
The voucher program, also known as Educational Freedom Accounts, would be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. Students who are enrolled at F-rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who have an active-duty military parent would be given first priority.
For the following school year, the program will extend to students who are enrolled in a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of first responders. By the 2025-2026 school year, each student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school.
Much of the criticism around the LEARNS Act has been directed at what some have perceived to be a rushed process. Lawmakers introduced the bill Feb. 20 and held a hearing 40 hours later. The following day, the Senate approved the bill, with much of the debate centered on what some felt was a rushed process.
Chesterfield's frustrations about the process came out during Monday's hearing, as she made a comment while Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill's sponsor, was answering a question from Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, about how the Department of Education will develop rules to enforce the LEARNS Act.
Courtney Salas-Ford, chief legal counsel for the Department of Education, said the agency will hold meetings with working groups that will include the public's input as it works on rules to enforce myriad provisions in the LEARNS Act. Davis said "no one wants a working group of yes people," prompting a comment from Chesterfield that what Hammer said was "below the standards" of the Senate.
"It was incredulous that we would talk about inclusion, because this whole process has been one big round of democratic dis-inclusion, if there is such a term," Chesterfield said. "So you'll excuse me if I was just incredulous that suddenly we decided that everybody's going to be involved in this process, because certainly everybody was not."
Information for this article was contributed by Paige Eichkorn of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.