Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders unveiled her education initiative, called Arkansas LEARNS, on Wednesday at the state capitol. From right are: Speaker of the House Matthew J. Shepherd, Governor Huckabee Sanders and Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva. John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate/02/08/2023
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ long-awaited education bill was filed Monday.
The wide-ranging, 144-page bill was published on the Arkansas Legislature’s website just before 5 p.m.
Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, has 25 sponsors in the Senate and 55 in the House. All are Republicans. The Senate has 35 members; the House has 100.
In a statement, Sanders called the legislation “the biggest, most far-reaching, conservative education reform in America.”
“Once Arkansas LEARNS passes, minimum teacher pay will go from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation, parents will be empowered to choose whatever school is best for their family, and our students will finally be back to learning the basics of reading, writing, science, math, and history and put on a pathway to success,” Sanders said.
Sanders unveiled parts of her education package nearly three weeks ago during a press conference at the Capitol.
At the time, she said the legislation would include raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and a new voucher program that would provide funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private and parochial schools or homeschool.
Both components are included in SB 294.
The LEARNS Act also includes sweeping changes to school personnel policy, how struggling schools operate, student progression, literacy education, teacher recruitment and a host of other K-12 issues.
Lead sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) has said she intends to present the legislation during the Senate Education Committee’s meeting on Wednesday, which has an earlier start time of 9 a.m.
Some of the high points:
As promised, the bill repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, but it also makes extensive changes to how schools pay teachers.
The bill raises the base teacher salary in Arkansas from $36,000 to $50,000, and it does away with the minimum teacher salary schedule, which sets minimum pay guidelines for teachers based on their years of experience and educational attainment.
The bill would also require that each teacher — even those earning more than the minimum — receive a $2,000 pay raise next school year.
The legislation offers state funds to help districts meet the increased salary demands.
But those state funds come with conditions. To be eligible for the funds, districts must:
- Revise each teacher contract by the start of the 2023-2024 school year to require each teacher to work at least 190 days.
- Not adopt personnel contracts that provide more rights than those provided under state law.
- Use at least 80% of the funds allocated in the state’s per-student funding formula for teacher pay on teachers’ salaries. A district can seek a waiver from this requirement if it would put the district in fiscal distress. Some legislators have long been frustrated that school districts are not bound to spend state per-student funding the way it is outlined in the funding formula.
The bill would also create a “Merit Teacher Incentive Fund Program.” Many of the program’s details would have to be promulgated by the Department of Education, but the bill says the criteria should include student test scores, teacher mentoring and teachers instructing in subjects or geographical areas that are experiencing “a critical shortage in teachers.”
The bill also proposes the creation of a voucher program, called “Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program,” which once fully implemented in 2025 would be one of the most robust voucher programs in the U.S.
It will provide families state funds of up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, like private school tuition.
For the 2023-2024 school year, qualifying expenses are: tuition, fees, testing, school supplies and uniforms.
In 2024-2025, qualifying expenses expands to include tutoring, curriculum, course fees, college admission exams and other nontraditional education expenses.
The first students eligible for the program next school year will be those with disabilities, homeless students, foster children, children of active military members, students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or a school in need of Level 5 support, and students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.
First-year participation in the program is capped at 1.5% of the current total public school enrollment in the state.
The following year, student eligibility will expand to include those at “D”-rated schools and children of veterans, military reservists or first responders. Program participation will be capped at 3% of the current total public school enrollment.
In 2025-2026, all students will be eligible to participate in the program, and there will be no caps on participation so long as the program is fully funded.
The bill requires random annual audits of individual accounts and participating schools, and requires participating schools to administer an annual, state Board of Education approved assessment.
The LEARNS Act follows plans from an executive order issued on Sanders’ first day in office to prohibit teaching that “would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory.”
Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.
SB294 requires the review of the Department of Education’s rules, policies, materials and communications to identify items that promote indoctrination. Education Secretary Jacob Oliva may amend, annul or alter anything that’s deemed prohibited.
Public school employees and students cannot be required to attend trainings based on “prohibited indoctrination or Critical Race Theory.”
While most of this section of the bill focuses on prohibition, the legislation states this policy does not prohibit the discussion of public policy issues that some may find “unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”
The bill prohibits teachers from providing instruction on sexually explicit materials, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, gender identity or sexual orientation before the fifth grade.
However, child sexual abuse discussions are allowed.
Following up on last week’s executive order to prevent human trafficking, the LEARNS Act requires each public school district and open-enrollment charter school to implement a child sexual abuse and human trafficking prevention program and provide training for teachers.
Parents and legal guardians must be notified when child sexual abuse and assault and human trafficking prevention education will occur. Parents and guardians are allowed to preview the materials and exempt their child from the program.
Beginning with the ninth-grade class of 2024-2025, students will have the option to earn a high school diploma through a career-ready pathway. The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education will develop the diploma, which will include “modern career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs.”
Schools will incorporate career awareness activities like field trips and guest speakers in sixth through eighth grade to help students prepare choosing a career option in high school.
Beginning with the graduating class of 2026-2027, high school students will be required to complete 75 hours of community service to graduate. This requirement can be waived in extenuating circumstances such as a major illness, homelessness or if the student is a major contributor to the family income.
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