Arkansas Senate advances governor’s sweeping education legislation to House
Bill includes teacher pay raises, school safety measures, vouchers, literacy programs and more
Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) answers questions from fellow senators on Feb. 23, about the governor’s education bill, also known as the LEARNS Act. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas Senate on Thursday approved Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ wide-ranging education plan despite bipartisan requests to slow the legislative process.
Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, stems from Sanders’ campaign promise to make major changes to the state’s education system. The legislation covers teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, “indoctrination,” school choice and a variety of other topics.
Bill sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said Arkansas students are the legislation’s priority.
“They are the future of our state and we believe that every child should have access to quality education that fits their educational journey,” Davis said.
The 144-page bill was introduced late in the day Monday, about 40 hours before the Senate Education Committee’s Wednesday hearing.
After more than five hours of testimony, the legislation passed out of committee and landed on the Senate floor Thursday where lawmakers debated the bill for another hour and a half.
The Senate approved SB 294 by a vote of 25-7, with one senator voting present and two not voting.
“Thank you to the Arkansas Senate for passing Arkansas LEARNS with resounding support,” Sanders said in a statement. “Let’s get it passed in the House and signed into law, transforming Arkansas education and serving as a blueprint for educational success across the nation.”
The bill will next be heard by the House Education Committee. Chairman Brian Evans (R-Cabot) said this week he would tentatively schedule a special order of business for the committee’s Feb. 28 meeting in anticipation of a large crowd wanting to speak on the bill.
Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) said the speed at which the education plan is advancing through the Legislature is concerning to his constituents who said the process feels rushed. Davis said conversations about the bill have been ongoing for months, and lawmakers are following standard procedure.
Sen. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) disagreed, saying it’s not normal to vote on a single piece of legislation with several important topics. Davis responded this is a comprehensive education bill.
“There are many people that want to vote for this that your process has put in a situation,” Murdock said. “The enormity of this bill, the complexity of this bill, the many questions that it yields, is what’s a large part of the problem.”
Murdock said the only reason the bill made it out of committee Wednesday was because Davis promised the House of Representatives would make several suggested changes in a single amendment.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) gave an impassioned speech Thursday, voicing his displeasure with not amending the bill in the Senate before sending it to the House. Hickey said he had multiple issues that could be addressed through amendments, such as creating more accountability for institutions receiving taxpayer money.
SB 249 proposes the creation of the “Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program,” which would allow state funding to be used as private school vouchers or on other education costs, like homeschool expenses, supplies or tutoring.
Hickey noted the House could renege on the promise to address all of the Senate’s issues through an amendment if one of those issues would cost them the votes needed to pass the bill, and “at that point, the House controls the Senate,” he said.
“There’s not a person in this room that does not think that we are not going to pass this education bill,” Hickey said. “There’s a ton of it that I like, but when it comes back and we’ve done had 16 more arguments and fights and got more raw at each other, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to say, ‘just pass it out and let’s get out of here.’ I’d ask you not to allow that to happen today.”
Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said he liked much of the bill, but knew not everyone would be satisfied with the final product.
“That being said, all these senators that talked about process are not only right, you know they’re right,” he said.
Clark said he’s learned to respect the legislative process because friends and opponents alike find things that make a bill better. Clark said as much as he loves the education package, he’s disappointed in the way lawmakers are going about passing it.
“As important as this is, we’ve got to get it right,” he said. “We can’t afford to fail and we need the feedback from our educators, we need the feedback from our legislators, we need to go through this process the right way.”
Senators said delaying the bill’s approval would allow time for questions to be answered, such as how the legislation’s many proposals will be funded.
The Arkansas Department of Education estimates the legislation will cost $297 million in the first year and $343 million in the second year of implementation.
By fiscal 2025, the plan will require $250 million in new state spending, according to the department’s projections. The state already spends more than $2 billion annually on public education.
The most expensive portion of the plan is the teacher pay increase — roughly $180 million annually.
While the bill raises the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000, it eliminates the mandatory teacher salary schedule, which rewards more-experienced teachers. Joint Budget Committee co-chair Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) said the expectation is districts will create their own salary schedules.
“We’re restoring some local control and local authority to our board members and we’re entrusting them, as elected officials, to do the right thing with that authority,” he said. “If we find out otherwise, we do have the ability to, I think, tighten the reins.”
SB 294 does not provide increased pay for classified staff, but Dismang said that will be addressed separately as lawmakers increase per-student funding.
The second most expensive provision of the LEARNS Act is the Education Freedom Account program, which will cost $46.7 million next year and $97.5 million the following year.
The program — which will be fully implemented in three years — is expected to grow to a cost of $175 million in 2026, according to budget officials.
Dismang said he’s concerned about the program’s third year because there are many unknowns, like how many schools will opt in and how many students will apply.
King said he’s concerned about the governor’s plan to run legislation impacting education, Medicaid and the correctional system during these “ tough economic times.”
“All this new money, counting on growth, all those things, those concern me,” King said.
Dismang agreed there is much to consider in the state’s budget, but said he has not seen a balanced budget proposal from the current administration and doesn’t know when lawmakers will.
Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson submitted a balanced budget proposal prior to leaving office in January.
By running SB 294 early in the session, lawmakers have demonstrated a commitment to addressing education and “that will come at a cost,” Dismang said.
“We’re not in a vacuum, to Sen. King’s point…it will throttle what we’re able to do and how we expedite the income tax cuts here in the state of Arkansas, but again, we said this was a priority and I agree with that priority,” he said.
Sanders committed to reducing the state income tax burden during her campaign.
“I think we have to be prudent on how we spend ongoing dollars and what we do to those ongoing dollars through tax cuts, and I think you’re going to see a good, robust and healthy debate on what we do for the budget as a whole,” Dismang said.
A portion of funding for the education package will come from the state’s education adequacy fund, which Dismang said he’s been told is growing at a rate that can afford it.
New money will be supplied through revenue stabilization, and American Rescue Plan Act funds will be one-time money used to support the intensive literacy coaches proposed in the LEARNS Act.
The governor in January issued an executive order abolishing the ARPA Steering Committee, which was created by her predecessor to review funding requests and send approved projects to legislators for consideration.
“I think there is a reasonable attempt to make sure that everything that we’re doing can be funded through ongoing revenue not one-time funds, that’s the goal,” Dismang said.
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