Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva listens as Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (right) unveils her education initiative, called Arkansas LEARNS, on Wednesday at the state Capitol. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday unveiled some details of her long-awaited education overhaul plan, which includes raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and rolling out a new school voucher program that will eventually be available to all Arkansans.
During a press conference inside the Capitol, Sanders said providing every child with access to a quality education is the “civil rights issue of our day.”
“The longer we wait to reform our failing schools, the more future generations we’re condemning to a lifetime of poverty,” she said. “I promised to be the education governor and I’m proud to deliver on that promise only a month into my term.”
Key points of Sanders’ plan
Key points of Sanders’ plan
In addition to raising the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, Sanders’ plan includes up to $10,000 in bonuses and complete student loan forgiveness for new teachers willing to teach in high-need areas.
The new Education Freedom Account will provide state funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private, parochial schools or homeschool, Sanders said. The program will be rolled out to “at-risk” families first and be available to all families within three years.
The new Republican governor also said the legislation would include limits on race and sexual education, saying Arkansas won’t teach kids “what to think, but how to think.”
Sanders promised to streamline early childhood education programs and funding, deploy 120 “highly trained” reading coaches to schools that need it most and provide $500 tutoring grants to K-3 students not meeting benchmarks.
To address workforce readiness, a dual diploma program will be launched in all high schools. The Career Ready Diploma will “provide high school students with the opportunity to choose a pathway that best fits their needs after graduation,” Sanders said.
Sanders shared these details at a press conference and subsequent news release, but legislation has not yet been filed. House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) said he expects the bill to be roughly 125 pages, and it could be filed by the middle of next week.
Evans, who has been involved in the drafting of the legislation, acknowledged that there are still some in the GOP on the fence.
“I think there are some Republican members on both ends of the General Assembly that think about their communities back home. What are the cornerstones of those communities? In many instances, it’s the public school system,” Evans said.
“I think they’ll get over the line, but right now they’re just a little bit hesitant until they see the exact particulars of the bill just to make sure that the benefit and the gain is going to outweigh any potential risks to their communities.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) said she has not yet seen a draft of the legislation, but said Democrats are opposed to an “omnibus” bill. She also questioned the constitutionality of addressing so many issues in one bill.
“Even if there are some things that we would like to support, or could support, [we] just can’t do it because the voucher part of it’s going to be a systematic dismantling of the public school system in Arkansas,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) also filed legislation to increase classified employees’ salary from $11 an hour to $15 an hour.
Senate Bill 149 was on the agenda for Wednesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, but committee chair Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) announced during Tuesday’s Senate meeting that the committee meeting was cancelled.
McCullough said Democrats still plan to run their bills.
Language for Sanders’ wide-ranging education package has been sent to the Bureau of Legislative Research, which will draft the legislation, Sanders said. The plan is expected to cost $300 million the first year, with $150 million in new spending, she said.
Arkansas had the fourth lowest starting pay for teachers in the country during the 2020-21 school year, the most readily available statistics, according to the National Education Association. Montana had the lowest salary at $32,495 while New Jersey had the highest at $54,053.
Sanders’ proposed minimum salary would rank Arkansas in the top five highest-paying states, according to NEA data.
Fayetteville and Springdale are the only two school districts that currently have a starting pay of $50,000, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.
Evans said the $50,000 mark for starting teacher pay didn’t come from the Democrats’ proposal.
“Whether it was the governor’s initiative, a Republican initiative, a Democrat initiative, the bottom line is every member of the General Assembly wants us to be as competitive as we can be on teacher pay, and thankfully, we were all able to get together on a number,” he said
The latest battle surrounding teacher pay began last summer when the state’s $1.6 billion surplus prompted calls to increase teacher salaries.
However, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not include teacher raises on the agenda for last August’s special session because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators. Lawmakers said they’d rather address the issue during the regular session in January.
The Senate and House education committees discussed school funding and reviewed the adequacy of education spending last year as required by the landmark court case, Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee.
Lawmakers have conducted these adequacy reviews every two years since 2003 to ensure public school funding is equitable. Arkansas spends about 41% of its general revenue budget on K-12 public education.
In October, the House and Senate education committees were split on public school funding recommendations. Each committee submitted their own funding proposal, but both groups recommended increasing starting teacher pay to $40,000.
While Sanders did not mention it at her press conference, the proposed legislation would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, according to the governor’s office.
Under the act, teachers must be notified by May 1 whether or not the district plans to rehire them. If teachers are dismissed, they are entitled to a written statement of the reasons why their contract is not being renewed, and they have an opportunity to appeal their termination to the school board.
Sanders’ education package will also include 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and expand school safety initiatives like crisis response and mental health awareness training.
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Education freedom accounts
Phasing in the “Education Freedom Account” program over three years is a smart approach, Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said. Davis was a member of the governor’s working group and will run the bill in the Senate.
“It makes sure we can work out any technicalities along the way that need to be, so that it’s a smooth transition for every student,” she said.
The program would allow families to use public dollars on private school tuition or homeschooling costs, for instance. Sanders said the voucher amount would be about 90% of the per-student funding amount public school districts receive — $7,349 this school year.
The initiative also includes a transportation fund and would remove the caps on the number of charter schools or school choice transfers, according to the governor’s office.
“We call it a parent empowerment program because honestly when you say vouchers or school choice, that’s not really accurate because schools aren’t choosing,” Davis said. “It’s parents and families choosing a school that meets their kids’ educational needs.”
A coalition of Democrats and Republicans from mostly rural areas have blocked several voucher bills in committee in past sessions.
Traditional voucher programs allow families to take tax dollars and put them toward private school tuition. Arkansas has two voucher programs.
The Succeed Scholarship Program provides about $7,400 for private tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families. The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program provides private-school scholarships for students whose families make no more than 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,000 a year for a family of four in Arkansas).
Opponents of voucher programs say they take away funding from public schools and send it to private institutions that aren’t held to the same level of accountability and standards.
Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) has filed two bills to address these issues. HB 1204 would require private schools to administer an annual statewide assessment, while HB 1205 would require a school that accepts state funding to provide transportation to certain students.
Both bills were listed on Tuesday’s House Education Committee agenda, but neither was discussed.
In Arkansas, 35% of third graders can read at grade level, according to the governor’s office. To improve that, Sanders plans to create a unified system to expand access to “high-quality education” from birth to 12th grade.
Literacy coaches will be deployed to maximize student learning, and K-3 students struggling to read at grade level will be eligible for $500 a year for supplemental education services.
Before advancing to 4th grade, students must be able to read at a 3rd grade level.
The new Career Ready Diploma program is a dual-track diploma that will prepare students to take on high-paying jobs in the workforce once they graduate, according to the governor’s office.
Students will be required to complete 75 hours of community service to graduate high school. Students will also have access to a catalog of available courses to choose from so they can take courses across the state.
A workforce dashboard will provide online resources for job seekers to find available jobs and required training in their region.
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