Sanders signs wide-ranging executive order on education, promises bill ‘very soon’

By: - January 11, 2023 9:00 pm
Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva (second from right) lists some of the priorities in the executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (right). The order was the second in Sanders' first two days in office to focus on Arkansas' education system. (Photo by Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva (second from right) lists some of the priorities in the executive order signed Wednesday by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (right). The order was the second in Sanders' first two days in office to focus on Arkansas' education system. (Photo by Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders continued to detail her education agenda Wednesday, her second day as governor of Arkansas, by signing an executive order covering a variety of issues, including literacy, school choice and early childhood education.

Sanders called the order “a comprehensive approach [to] education that we want to parallel” with a single bill that will move through the Legislature, encompassing the same issues and more, including teacher pay. The bill will be filed “very soon,” Sanders said.

“I think putting everything in [one bill] and building a broad base of support is the best thing for the state, and ultimately the best thing for the students of Arkansas” she said. “Hopefully all of the stakeholders involved will get a little bit of some of the things that they want to see.”

The order directs the Department of Education, in some cases in coordination with the Department of Human Services to conduct 90-day reviews of:

  • Kindergarten readiness, including a census of children from infants to 5-year-olds who are in early childhood care and education programs.
  • Literacy instruction, including determining whether school districts are implementing the 2019 Arkansas Right to Read Act and using a curriculum aligned with the Science of Reading.
  • How school districts involve parents, including parental and public access to curriculum information and required reading materials.
  • How and where districts have spent federal pandemic relief funds.
  • Teacher preparation and licensure requirements, including a review of and report the state’s educator workforce.
  • The implementation of school safety laws by school districts, including development of proposed regulations to the State Board of Education based on the 2022 School Safety Commission’s final report.

Literacy challenge

Only 35% of Arkansas third-graders read at grade level and nearly 70% of incarcerated Arkansans cannot read at a fourth-grade level, according to the executive order.

Additionally, a majority of jobs in Arkansas require more educational background than a high school diploma or GED, but fewer than half of Arkansas adults meet those requirements.

“If we can really look at making sure those opportunities exist in every single ZIP code, we know we can hit that goal of 90% to 100% of our third-graders reading at or above grade level,” Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said at the signing ceremony. “When we do that, they can be on those career pathways, and they can be on a pathway to postsecondary [education] and payment.”

State Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she also believes in the tie between childhood literacy and adult workforce readiness.

“If you get a diploma and can’t read it, what have we done?” English said.

She told reporters that she is not currently involved in the development of the omnibus education bill but looks forward to reading it when it is introduced.

Another of Sanders’ priorities is school choice and “parental empowerment.” Oliva said families “have the right to have a seat at the table” and choose the right school environment for their children.

“We have to raise the expectations that parents be involved with their kids’ education” in order to give them that choice, English said.

“Empower parents”

The executive order will help the state determine how much choice parents currently have in which schools their children attend. The order also calls on the Education Secretary in tandem with the State Board of Education to streamline the process for expanding and replicating “effective charter schools.”

It further requires the state to provide more information to parents about how the quality of their schools are graded on an A to F scale. More than 140,000 Arkansas children attend schools rated D or F, the executive order states.

“When we say we’re going to give [schools] a grade based on what we’re measuring, we’re saying those are the things that are important to us,” Oliva said. “Asking the agency to review what we’re measuring and saying it’s important to us to make sure we’re getting learning right is critical, because we want parents to look at that grade and know that that grade means something.”

First education order

One of seven executive orders Sanders signed Tuesday, a few hours after taking the oath of office, bans the “indoctrination” of Arkansas school children with ideas like critical race theory. This curriculum is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and it is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.

Legislative Democrats expressed their opposition to that order and to Sanders’ school choice agenda during a news conference Wednesday. They also said they hoped a package of education legislation would be split into several bills instead of one large bill.

Sonny Albarado contributed to this story.

Gov. Sanders executive order January 11, 2023


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.