Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva (left) listens as Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders outlines her education initiative on Feb.8, 2023, at the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The fifth week of the 2023 legislative session finally brought us Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education plan — sort of.
The bill hasn’t been filed (more on that later), but she outlined some of the key components of a sweeping piece of legislation that would bring drastic changes to K-12 education in Arkansas.
Vouchers, a $14,000 increase in starting teacher pay, teacher student loan forgiveness, removal of the caps on school choice transfers and charter schools, the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and more.
Yeah, it’s going to be a big bill.
1) The Proposal
Sanders on Wednesday shared some of the high points of the education package, which she said is her biggest priority of the session.
We won’t get deep into those details here; you can read our more detailed write-up on the plan here.
The details of the bill have been sent to the Bureau of Legislative Research, which is busy drafting the legislation. It could be ready to be filed by the middle of next week, but House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said it could take a bit longer.
Sanders’ education package will draw the bulk of the attention in the coming weeks, and to some extent, legislative leaders expect it to dictate what happens the rest of the session.
For instance, the package’s price tag could affect how much tax reduction can be pursued.
Another thing to watch: Who gets behind it.
It seems that lawmakers of both parties universally support raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000. There’s also broad support for literacy interventions, early childhood education and career and technical programs.
However, Democrats won’t support any bill that includes a voucher program and limits on race and sexual education.
There is also a contingent of Republicans who are reluctant to support vouchers.
One final note on the education proposal: I suspect there will be a parliamentary challenge to the legislation.
Sanders has said from the start that she wants the entire package to be considered as one bill. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans who oppose vouchers prefer to vote separately on other parts of the legislation, like teacher pay.
Some lawmakers have already questioned whether such a sweeping proposal can legally be voted on as one bill.
To examine that question, we turn to Rule 4 of the Joint Rules of the House of Representatives and Senate.
“No bill or resolution shall be passed by either house containing more than one subject, which shall be expressed in the title,” it reads.
Is this a bill on one subject: K-12 education? Or is this a bill on a whole manner of subjects, from vouchers to teacher pay to workforce education?
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said Thursday that he believes the bill will pass the muster of Rule 4. He will be the one likely to rule on any appeal from a House member. His ruling can be appealed to the House Rules Committee and eventually the full House.
2) Drag bill
It seems like an eternity ago, but the House on Monday approved the heavily amended Senate Bill 43, previously known as the anti-drag bill that attracted much of the attention of the first few weeks of the session.
The bill passed Monday restricts “adult-oriented” performances.
The original version targeted drag performances, but the version passed by the House on a party-line vote doesn’t mention the word “drag” or gender identity.
It defines an “adult-oriented performance” as one “that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,” meaning overtly sexual, and which features complete or partial nudity and the exposure of real or prosthetic breasts or genitalia. The bill dictates that these performances may not take place on public property, allow minors to be present or use any public funds.
The amended bill must go back through the Senate.
3) Bills of note
House and Senate committees have started to hit their mid-session stride.
Here are some of the most newsworthy bills that saw action this week:
- House Bill 1196, which passed the House on Monday, would enact a work requirement for able-bodied adults who receive public housing assistance.
- House Bill 1161, which would require schools to allow at least 10 days of excused absences for teenage parents after the birth of their child, is headed to the Senate after passing the House this week.
- House Bill 1006 passed the House Public Health Committee. It would require companies who pay for out-of-state abortion expenses to also provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.
- House Bill 1127, which could bolster federal funding for rural hospitals as an incentive to specialize in emergency and outpatient care, is headed to Sanders’ desk after passing the House and Senate.
Here are a few of the noteworthy bills filed this week:
- Senate Bill 199 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) would create liability for health care providers who provide gender-affirming treatments to minors “injured, including without limitation any physical, psychological, emotional, or physiological injury, by the gender transition procedure, related treatment, or the after effects of the gender transition procedure or related treatment.”
- House Bill 1370 by Rep. Lanny Fite (R-Benton) would end the requirement that those with solar arrays and other renewable energy sources be compensated at the regular retail rate for excess power generation.
4) Constitutional Amendments
Wednesday was the deadline for lawmakers to file constitutional amendments for the General Assembly to refer to the November 2024 ballot.
Every other year, the Legislature can refer up to three constitutional amendments.
Typically, the Senate and House each pick one their members prefer. The third is an amendment that both chambers can agree should be referred.
The ballot referrals are usually one of the last things lawmakers decide before adjourning the session. Speaker Shepherd on Thursday said there has been less discussion this session than in past years about the amendments. He said there weren’t any particular proposals that he would call “frontrunners.”
HJR1009 — Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Court and District Court elections would be partisan.
SJR3 — An individual shall not be denied the right to conduct a transaction based upon their opinions or beliefs.
SJR6 — Repeals sovereign immunity for the state in some cases.
SJR12 — Creates an implied warranty of habitability.
SJR13 — Legalizes marijuana for craft or home growing and adult use.
SJR18 — Repeals the office of lieutenant governor.
5) Parting shots
You also may have heard about a pair of speeches on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden gave his State of the Union address, and our governor was tapped to give the official Republican response, which she did from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.
Next week, all eyes will still be on Sanders’ education package. Will it be drafted and filed?
A number of newsworthy bills are still working their way through both chambers with more to come.
We’ll report back next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter for quick, daily updates about the session and other Arkansas news.
Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda contributed to this story.
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