Olivia Gardner (left) from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families speaks in favor of Rep. Ashley Hudson’s (right, D-Little Rock) bill supporting pregnant and parenting students during the House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 7, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
A bill that would create support systems for teenage parents in Arkansas schools passed the House Education Committee unanimously Tuesday and will go to the full House for approval.
Arkansas has an 87% higher teen pregnancy rate than the rest of the United States and one of the lowest high school graduation rates, said Rep. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock), the primary sponsor of the Support for Pregnant and Parenting Students Act, or House Bill 1161.
The bill is meant to “be a little creative and outside the box in trying to help these students be successful in high school and get their degrees,” Hudson said.
Her hometown in southern Illinois had the state’s highest teen pregnancy rate, and several of her high school classmates were teen parents, she said.
“I saw firsthand how difficult it was for those teen moms and teen dads to adjust to parenting and trying to finish their education,” Hudson said.
House Bill 1161 would require public schools and open-enrollment charter schools to allow at least 10 days of excused absences for both teenage parents after the birth of their child. This would be an exception to the requirement for schools to dismiss students who miss more than 10 days of school, Hudson said.
“It’s not a get-out-of-school-free [pass],” she said. “They can’t just declare that they’re going to take the day off because they’ve got stuff to do with their child. They do have to get permission from either a doctor’s note or a parent or guardian in order to take this additional time off, so there are safeguards in place.”
The bill would also require schools to excuse teen parents’ absences due to:
- Labor, delivery and recovery
- Prenatal and postnatal doctors’ appointments and other “medically necessary” absences related to pregnancy
- Children’s illnesses or doctors’ appointments
- Legal appointments regarding adoption, custody, visitation and other matters related to pregnancy and parenting
Hudson said her experience as an employment lawyer led her to shape this portion of the bill similarly to existing family leave policies. She also said a similar bill in Louisiana that became law last year served as a model for House Bill 1161.
Students would have “a reasonable amount of time” that is at least the number of days they were absent to make up for schoolwork they missed, according to the bill.
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This flexibility is necessary for pregnant and parenting students “to be successful students and parents,” said Olivia Gardner, director of education policy for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
“This would lower the chance of a student falling so far behind academically that they risk dropping out of school altogether,” Gardner said. “Unfortunately, this is a sad situation that’s all too common in our state.”
Students would not be allowed to bring their children to school with them, so the bill would require schools to provide pregnant and parenting students with information about daycare facilities in the area, which is available in an Arkansas Department of Human Services database, Hudson said.
The bill would also require schools to designate a private space for lactating students to pump and breastfeed, and this space must not be a restroom, Hudson said. Schools would also need to have a refrigerated space to store breast milk in a nurse’s office, teacher’s lounge or other location with a certain amount of privacy.
These provisions “would give the [lactating] student necessary privacy while reducing any associated stigma,” Gardner said.
Gardner was the only witness in favor of the bill, and there were no witnesses against it.
Rep. Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren) said high schools in her rural district already allow leave for pregnant and parenting students, and she asked Hudson if she could give examples of schools not doing so.
Hudson said some schools have generous policies for these students while others, including several in Pulaski County, do not have such policies in place.
“What that means is that you end up with students who have different outcomes, sometimes even within the same school,” she said. “A student may be able to get leave in one situation, and then the next student who maybe talks to a different assistant principal or comes through a couple of years later isn’t able to get any leave.”
House Bill 1161 would create “a structure and some guidance” for all Arkansas schools with pregnant and parenting students, Hudson said.
Fite said she supported creating these statewide minimum standards, and she made the motion to pass the bill.
Three Democratic and two Republican representatives are co-sponsoring the bill with Hudson, while Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) is the primary Senate sponsor and is joined by one Democrat and three Republicans.
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