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Most NWA lawmakers support education bill, final tally shows

by Doug Thompson | March 8, 2023 at 6:35 a.m.
FILE - Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks after taking the oath of office, Jan. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday, March 7, approved a massive education bill that creates a new school voucher program, handing a major policy win to Sanders that critics said could threaten support for public schools. (AP Photo/Will Newton, File)

Most Northwest Arkansas lawmakers supported the governor's education package while regional school leaders said Tuesday they were taking time to study the measure before commenting.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' 144-page education bill covers issues ranging from school safety to taxpayer-funded educational savings accounts that can be used for tutoring, education-related equipment and tuition to private schools. The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday. The governor announced Tuesday she will sign the bill today.

The Fayetteville School District's leadership is evaluating the lengthy bill, which was extensively amended Friday before it passed the House, spokesman Alan Wilbourn said Tuesday. The district is also awaiting the implementing rules and regulations before making any comment. The Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale school districts contacted for comment had no immediate reaction to the still-unsigned bill.

"In reality this bill passed on Nov. 8, 2022, when Sarah Sanders became governor-elect," said Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. Sanders campaigned on the issue of school reform and clearly put the issue first among her campaign priorities, he said.

"I've been campaigning on these kind of changes for years," said Dotson, who was first elected to the state House in 2012. "So have a lot of members of the Legislature. Now we have a governor in full support. We didn't just get over the finish line. We accelerated to the finish line."

Rep. Kendra Moore, R-Lincoln, served on the Lincoln Consolidated School District board from 2010 until entering the Legislature this year. She also said in an interview earlier this week that the governor's strong support was vital in getting the bill passed -- and a good indicator the governor will continue to push for success on education.

"The bill shows that the governor's first priority is education," Moore said. "That's where she's putting the time, the resources and the dollars."

The bill authorizes an extensive rule-making process in which the voice of her largely rural district and other districts like it will be heard, Moore said. The governor's office and the state Department of Education leadership convinced her they have a plan and the ability to implement it, she said.

"There are a few things in this bill that kept me up at night," Moore said. "But they seem to have a clear path to get us there. They've spent countless hours crunching the numbers."

Two Republicans in the Senate and three in the House voted against the measure in votes this week. Tuesday's vote in the Senate was 26-8. Five of the six senators who live in either Benton or Washington counties voted for the bill on Tuesday. All five Northwest Arkansas senators who voted for it co-sponsored the bill. Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, was the lone senator from either Benton or Washington counties to vote against the measure on Tuesday.

"I fully expect legal challenges," Leding said in a telephone interview Tuesday. Opponents of the bill argue the bill's allowing taxpayer dollars to go to private schools, among other provisions, violates Article 14, Section 1 of the state constitution, which requires the state to "maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools."

"I had a lot of emails from constituents that started with 'I'm a Republican but' or 'I voted for Sarah Sanders but' and went on to object to this bill," Leding said. "This is not a partisan issue. There were Republicans who voted against this bill."

Only three Republican lawmakers in the House voted against the bill when it passed that chamber on Thursday in a 78-21 vote. All three Democrats in the Northwest Arkansas House delegation voted against the bill. The only Republican in the Northwest Arkansas delegation to vote against the bill was Rep. Hope Hendren Duke, R-Gravette, who was a member of the Gravette School Board before entering the Legislature. She is serving her first term. The other 14 House members who come from either Benton or Washington counties voted for the bill.

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