Early reaction to Arkansas education bill mixed

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, surrounded by legislators, students, parents and teachers, announced details of her education plan on the steps outside the House Chambers in the State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, surrounded by legislators, students, parents and teachers, announced details of her education plan on the steps outside the House Chambers in the State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The 144-page Arkansas LEARNS bill that was introduced late Monday afternoon by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had many educators and policymakers scrambling into the evening to process and respond to its myriad components.

Senate Bill 294 calls for $50,000 minimum salaries for starting teachers, $2,000 raises for more veteran teachers and educator incentives of up to $10,000. It would also establish a phased-in universal state-funded private school education account/voucher program, encourage traditional school districts to partner with open-enrollment charter schools to operate low-performing traditional schools and extract the decades-old Teacher Fair Dismissal and the School Employees Fair Hearing acts.

Early reaction was mixed.

Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association school employee union, said Monday night that some of the provisions in the bill had been previously publicized, but without details.

"There are even more questions now that the precise language has been drafted and filed," Fleming said.

"While there are many new programs to be introduced, there are still many details lacking. Some of those include the recruitment and retention of educators in our state when it appears the salary schedule for teachers has been eliminated. How will we be able to attract the best and brightest to Arkansas with no guarantee of future employment or salary advancement?"

Fleming said she regretted that the voices of the association -- established in 1869 as an advocate for student and educator rights -- were not included in the crafting of the bill.

She also expressed concerns about plans by state lawmakers to act quickly on the bill, leaving constituents with as few as 36 hours to review its contents and assess the impact before the bill goes to the Senate Education Committee.

[DOCUMENT: Read Senate Bill 294 » arkansasonline.com/221sb294/]

"While we support expanded early intervention, literacy and tutoring, we are concerned about individuals being able to access those services -- particularly through the availability of transportation," Fleming said.

"There is no doubt that educator pay should be increased. While there is a focus on increasing the starting pay for certified teachers, there has been an oversight on increasing pay for support staff," she said, calling that a concern and contrary to earlier plans.

"Other sections of the bill have raised questions, praise and consternation from our members. We hope to be able to discuss these with Governor Sanders, [Education Secretary Jacob Oliva] and the sponsors of the LEARNS Act bill," she also said.

Leaders of The Reform Alliance were pleased with the bill, saying that it will provide a systemic, holistic overhaul of the state education system, to the benefit of students, parents and teachers.

"We're pleased to see Gov. Sanders, along with legislative leaders Sen. Breanne Davis and Rep. Keith Brooks, leading in a visionary, transformative way to improve Arkansas education," Laurie Lee, chairperson of The Reform Alliance, said Monday night.

The nonprofit Reform Alliance organization highlighted the bill's provision that will create the "Educational Freedom Account" program for Arkansas students. The program would be phased in over three years, starting in the 2023-2024 school year for the most at-risk students. By 2025-2026, all students could access the taxpayer-funded accounts for use in offsetting private school tuition and other education-related costs.

"We're pleased to see this wholehearted embrace of innovation in the educational freedom movement," said Lee. "We're moving away from vouchers, which work as a single, static payment for tuition, to a more flexible tool that empowers parents to individualize purchases for their child, beginning with essentials like tuition and then expanding to needs like tutoring, technology or other essential educational needs."

Alliance leaders pointed out that the bill, if passed, would hold private institutions accepting the state funding accountable. Private school students accepting the funds would annually take a test that has been approved by the state Board of Education, the bill states.

"We believe in accountability in all forms, to the students, to their parents and Arkansas taxpayers who have invested in educating the next generation, arguably the most important thing we do as a society," said Lee.

In addition to a $50,000 minimum salary for new teachers and $2,000 raises, the proposed law would provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and take other steps to attract people to the teaching profession, including scholarships for teachers who commit to staying in Arkansas.

"Teachers deserve not just better compensation, but a work environment in which they know they're valued and appreciated," Lee said.

Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland had several concerns about Senate Bill 294 and about what she fears will be a rush to enact it.

"As written, this bill would have terrible consequences for Arkansas students and teachers," Noland said.

"Education is extremely complicated, to say the least. It would be negligent for lawmakers to rush a bill of this magnitude through the Legislature without taking the time to independently vet it. Arkansas voters need to demand that our legislators pause and listen to teachers, superintendents, parents, school board members and other stakeholders before voting on this bill," she said.

Noland also objected to "outsourcing education to unaccountable private schools."

"For-profit vendors will never be an acceptable substitute for trained licensed teachers and locally controlled public schools that serve all students," she said.

Like many on Monday, Little Rock Superintendent Jermall Wright said he had not had sufficient time by Monday evening to process the terms of the bill.

"But of course I'm not supportive of the voucher/savings account portion of the plan," Wright said.

"There have been other components of the framework that I've seen that are also very concerning, but I have not had the chance to see the language or the details around these areas in the bill yet." He cited the proposed removal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act as a example.

Senate Bill 294 will also have an effect on private and parochial schools that choose to accept state funding and/or must compete for teachers who can earn $50,000 to start in a public school.

Theresa Hall, superintendent of Arkansas Catholic Schools, told the Arkansas Catholic newspaper last week that the anticipated bill, if passed, could have both positive and negative effects on the parochial schools.

The education accounts could result in increased enrollments in private schools.

"This would help children who are Catholics who are going to public schools," Hall was quoted in the Arkansas Catholic as saying. "We hope that this will give them the opportunity to come into our schools."

Hall also said she wanted to retain an application process for the parochial schools and not be mandated to accept all who apply. "That's not going to work for us."

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