What you need to know about Arkansas LEARNS

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Welcome to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's guide to Arkansas LEARNS. Here you can find a full breakdown of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul package, including what it is, what supporters and critics say and what comes next. You can also find the text of the LEARNS Act, our previous reporting on the package and more.

Finally, if you have questions about the LEARNS Act that aren't answered on this page, let us know here. Your feedback helps us to improve this guide.

Table of contents

When did the LEARNS Act become law?

Key points

When was it filed?

Primary sponsors

Text of the Arkansas LEARNS Act

What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?

What will the voucher program do?

How will it affect teacher salaries and dismissal?

What else does the education overhaul do? 

How much will the package cost?

What happens now that the bill has passed?

Articles on the LEARNS Act

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When did the LEARNS Act become law?

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Senate Bill 294, also known as the LEARNS Act, into law March 8.

Key points

• $50,000 minimum salaries for starting teachers 

• $2,000 raises for more veteran teachers and educator incentives of up to $10,000.

• Phased-in universal state-funded private school education account/voucher program 

• Encourages traditional school districts to partner with open-enrollment charter schools to operate low-performing traditional schools 

• Repeals the decades-old Teacher Fair Dismissal and the School Employees Fair Hearing acts

When was it filed?

Monday, Feb. 20.

Primary sponsors

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock

Text of the Arkansas LEARNS Act

Act 237

  photo  FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?

A 145-page omnibus law that covers everything from school vouchers, to increased pay for teachers and higher literacy standards for elementary students, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ has described her education reform package as “the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history.”

The law, also known as the LEARNS Act, has been the top priority for Sanders since she took office in January. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

While the Republican governor campaigned on a broad outline of education reform that called for parental empowerment, new literacy standards and accountability for teachers, Sanders did not disclose details of her long-awaited education plan until Feb. 8. The bill itself was filed roughly two weeks later.

For three weeks, the bill made its way through the Legislature with complaints from some that the process to pass the bill was rushed. Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law March 8, exactly a month after she unveiled the package.

What will the voucher program do?

The new voucher program the law creates, called Educational Freedom Accounts, ties state funding for public schools to students. Students who receive an Educational Freedom Account will get 90% of what public schools get per student in state funding from the previous school year. The per-student funding for the 2022-2023 school year was $7,413.

The Educational Freedom Accounts program will be phased in over three years beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, creating a tiered priority list for students. At the top of the list for vouchers will be 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.

The next priority will be given 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.

Sanders said the voucher program would end a "one-size-fits-all model," where students attend schools based on their zip code rather than their individual needs.

"Under Arkansas' current system, a family's zip code is often the only thing that determines whether their kids will get the education that they need to succeed," Sanders said. "With new Education Freedom Accounts, parents will be able to send their kids to whatever school works best, whether it's private, public, parochial or home school."

How have others responded to the voucher program?

The voucher program has been the most debated provision of the LEARNS Act, gaining praise, and criticism, from state and national groups. Critics of the Educational Freedom Accounts said they will divert much-needed state funding meant for public schools to private schools.

"LEARNS creates a tiered system to give some students better advantages than others," Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said in a statement. "Public schools educate over 90% of students in Arkansas, but now they will be forced to compete for public tax dollars against private schools that don't have to follow the same rules."

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said in a statement that "LEARNS will dismantle and defund our public schools through a voucher system that has not worked anywhere ever. While some of the bill is admirable, its purported benefits will not reach our students in greatest need."

National conservative and pro-school choice groups released statements Wednesday lauding Sanders for the passage of the LEARNS Act, saying Arkansas will join the ranks of states such as Arizona and West Virginia that have implemented similar education measures.

"The new Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account Program makes Arkansas the 11th state in the union to adopt a form of educational savings accounts," said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, in a statement. "This initiative will ultimately allow every family in the state to qualify and ensure each of their children can attend the education institution of their choice."

Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based non-profit that advocates for school vouchers, said in a statement, "The heightened parental engagement instigated by the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't slowed down; parents continue to demand the ability to customize where and how their children are educated, and lawmakers are listening."

How will it affect teacher salaries and dismissal?

The LEARNS Act will raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000 a year, leaving Arkansas behind only Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia in starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

Teachers making above the new $50,000 a year minimum also will receive a $2,000 raise and can earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance or being willing to teach a subject matter or in a geographic area that is in high demand.

Sanders said the bill would clear the way for 15,249 teachers to receive a raise to the new minimum, which would take effect for the 2023-2024 school year.

The increased starting salaries are an attempt to fill labor shortages at schools around the state. In recent months, school districts have had trouble retaining their staff and recruiting teachers, made worse by the fact Arkansas has had relatively low salaries for teachers when compared with other states. Arkansas has ranked ahead of only Colorado, Missouri and Montana for starting salaries for teachers. The minimum salary for teachers in the state was set at $36,000 a year, compared with a national average of $41,770, according to the National Education Association.

To attract more to the profession, full-time school employees also would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, the cost of which is to be split by the state and the school district. 

The law also creates a "Teacher Academy Scholarship Program," which covers tuition costs for prospective and current educators. The state's student loan repayment plan also will be increased from up to $3,000 to $6,000 per year in exchange for the student pledging to teach in a designated public school in Arkansas.

"We all know that an excellent education starts with excellent teachers," Sanders said. "Arkansas LEARNS gives our public schools the resources they need to attract and retain our great teachers."

The law repeals the state's salary schedule for teachers, instead requiring each school district to come up with its own pay structure for educators.

Arkansas LEARNS also repeals 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 move is meant to make it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance, something Sanders hinted at when she campaigned on accountability for teachers. Teachers will still have the "opportunity for a hearing" and notice before they can be fired.

The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was a law that required school districts to notify teachers of changes in their employment status before May 1 each year. 

How have others responded to the teacher pay and dismissal changes?

Brooks, who was one of the bill’s two sponsors, said repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act is something superintendents asked for to help with "the challenge of moving on from teachers who they deem aren't performing up to their expectations." 

McCullough, the House minority leader, expressed concerns, however.

"As a teacher for three decades, I am worried about what this will do to the teaching profession," she said. "It does raise the minimum salary, but it revokes workplace protections and unnecessarily voids a uniform salary schedule that was mandated by the courts. That's a slap in the face to educators and will exacerbate our teacher shortage."

What else does the education overhaul do? 

The LEARNS Act also sets a new standard for literacy in Arkansas, barring students -- with exceptions -- who fail to meet the state Department of Education's reading requirements from advancing from the third grade. The bill calls for 120 literacy coaches and grants for families to hire tutors to assist students with reading.

High school students also will have the "option to earn a high school diploma through a career-ready pathway," where a student could take classes to prepare them for a career that does not require a college degree, such as automotive mechanics or agriculture.

The bill requires high schools to offer students a "career ready" pathway for the ninth-grade class by the 2024-2025 year to focus their education on "modern career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas," as part of a focus on technical education.

The law also includes codification of Sanders' executive order on Critical Race Theory, which requires the Department of Education to review policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory."

Also included in the act are recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which reconvened this summer, mandating that public schools develop a comprehensive school safety assessment and work with local police to improve safety.

How much will the package cost?

The LEARNS Act will cost the state $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that coming in the form of new spending, according to a study by the Arkansas Department of Education.

In year two, the cost will increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding. Pay for teachers will cost the state $180 million. The law's voucher program will cost $46.7 million in the first year and $97.5 in the second year, according to the Department of Education.

In the third year, the program will cost the state an estimated $175 million, said Robert Brech, deputy director of budget at the Department of Finance and Administration.

The Education Department's analysis estimates 7,000 students will enroll in the Educational Freedom Accounts program in the first year, and 14,000 in the following year.

What happens now that the bill has passed?

The day after the Arkansas LEARNS Act to revamp public education was signed into law, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talked to the state Board of Education about the next steps to bring the provisions of the law to fruition.

Oliva told the board that the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education staff are in the process of identifying themes within the Arkansas LEARNS Act and forming work groups around those themes in an effort to develop rules for carrying out the law in a fair and consistent manner. Teaching and learning might be the focus of one group, early learning the focus of another, and career and technical education might be a third, he said of what he anticipates will be about a half-dozen groups.

The state agency intends to invite statewide, representative participation in those groups for drafting necessary rules and regulations. He had said in February that he anticipates the development of an information dashboard to keep the board and public up to date on the new work.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Elementary and Secondary Education Division, said later Thursday that the specific work groups and the application process for membership will be released in the next week or two via communications from the agency in the form of a commissioner's memo, as well as in social media.

Oliva proposed that the Education Board and agency staff use time in April for a board workshop to discuss draft standards and the provisions of the LEARNS Act, much of which is to be initiated in the coming 2023-24 school year

Reporting for this summary provided by Neal Earley and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

Articles on the Arkansas LEARNS Act

Signing and implementation of LEARNS Act

Sanders, Oliva to board: Plenty of work ahead

Sanders signs Arkansas LEARNS, her education overhaul, into law

Process through Arkansas Legislature

Sanders' amended education bill heads back to full Senate for approval

House passes amended Arkansas LEARNS bill, sends it back to the Senate

Sanders’ education bill clears committee, heads to vote before full House

Sanders’ education overhaul seen as headed toward passage as some call for tweaks

Sanders’ education bill clears Arkansas Senate, heads to House

Sanders’ education bill goes before Arkansas Senate committee on Wednesday

Public response

Students protest at Capitol after LEARNS bill signed

Bill segregates, Central students write Sanders

Public weighs in on Arkansas LEARNS

Advocacy leaders call for more time before House vote on Sanders’ education bill

Governor’s education bill stirs concern in Northwest Arkansas’ first public forums on the proposal

Early reaction to Arkansas education bill mixed

General information on bill

Covid seen as driving more states to vouchers

Education chief Jacob Oliva talks Sanders' Arkansas LEARNS proposals

Education bill calls for $50K starting salary for Arkansas teachers, voucher program

LEARNS Act guide compiled by Josh Snyder of the Democrat-Gazette.

Last updated Friday March 10, 2023.