Arkansas House approves governor’s education legislation, sends back to Senate

By: - March 2, 2023 6:05 pm
Rep. DeAnn Vaught

Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) voices her support for SB294 in committee as Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) looks on at right. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

This story was updated at 6:05 p.m. Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ broad education package is one step closer to becoming law following approval by the Arkansas House of Representatives Thursday

After about an hour and a half of debate, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, by a vote of 78-21. 

All 18 Democrats were joined by three Republicans — Reps. Hope Duke (R-Gravette), Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) and Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) — in voting against the legislation. Rep. Ron McNair (R-Harrison) voted present.

Rep. Keith Brooks
House sponsor Rep. Keith Brooks, center, smiles following passage of the LEARNS Act out of committee Wednesday. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Because the bill was amended in the House, it must again be approved by the Arkansas Senate. House sponsor Rep. Keith Brooks (R-Little Rock) told the Advocate Wednesday that the legislation will go back to the Senate Education Committee Monday, and if approved, its final hurdle will be the full Senate on Tuesday.

“I have my pen ready to sign the boldest, most far-reaching, most conservative education reforms in the country into law after the Senate passes this amended version early next week,” Sanders said in a statement. “These sweeping changes will address teachers’ needs, defend parents’ rights, and, most importantly, give our kids the quality education they deserve.”

The LEARNS Act is the culmination of Sanders’ chief priority to make wide-ranging changes to the state’s education system. The legislation covers teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, “indoctrination,” a new voucher program and a variety of other topics.

“This bill is certainly unique in its size and scope, but the size of the challenge that we have in front of us and the expectations from children from every corner of our state demand that we act with boldness,” Brooks said.

Rep. Tara Shephard (D-Little Rock) spoke against the bill as a former member of the Little Rock School Board. The Little Rock district was taken over by the state. Shephard said “it didn’t end well” and resulted in declining test scores and the closure of schools that were “the heart” of her community. 

Shephard warned that under the LEARNS Act, more schools could close and communities would suffer as a result.

“In my experience with bold, transformational changes that the state promised it would give to my children in the Little Rock School District, the state plan did not work,” she said. 

Rep. Tara Shephard
Rep. Tara Shephard (Courtesy of the Arkansas House)

Shephard said while lawmakers could agree there are “some magnificent things in the bill,” she argued there are also things that would hurt students. 

“Those areas that we don’t agree on, what is the rush?” she asked. “Why can we not work together on the areas that we don’t agree on?” 

The 145-page bill was made public last week and passed through the Senate after three days. An amended version of the bill worked its way through the House this week.

One of the biggest sources of disagreement on the legislation is the proposed Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, which would provide families state funds up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, like private school tuition, tutoring and homeschool costs. The program will have limited enrollment in the first two years before expanding to all families in the third year.

A vocal opponent of vouchers, Wooten delivered an impassioned speech against the bill, which he said does not help public education because it diverts money away from public schools. He warned lawmakers that “this bill will come back to haunt you.” 

“Don’t be stampeded by a knee-jerk reaction to an emotional issue that we know exists, but we have to deal with it some way,” he said. “We’ve got to, it’s our responsibility, but this is not the way.” 

Prior to voting for the legislation, Rep. Rick McClure (R-Malvern) urged lawmakers to do their part to make sure every child has the opportunity to receive a quality education because “doing nothing is the wrong answer.”

“Voting for LEARNS is not a vote against educators or against public schools,” McClure said. “It is a vote saying it is time to move forward, to keep the good, work on the broken and give parents a choice.”

Rep. Hope Duke
Rep. Hope Duke (R-Gravette) asked questions about the LEARNS Act during a committee meeting Tuesday.
(John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Duke said she likes school choice, but she had a hard time getting past the financial piece of the bill, specifically, how it will impact local school districts as well as the state in the years to come. 

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 over $2 billion annually on public education.

The Education Freedom Account program, one of the most expensive parts of the bill, will cost $46.7 million next year and $97.5 million the following year. 

Participation will be capped during the program’s first two years. Lawmakers expressed concern about not knowing how much the program will cost when it’s available to all families in its third year and beyond. 

During the House Education Committee meeting Tuesday,  Department of Finance and Administration Deputy Director Robert Brech said officials don’t anticipate all private schools or students will opt into the program. Brech estimated the Education Freedom Account program could cost $175 million in the third year and $178 million in the fourth year. 

In addition to financial questions, Duke said her constituents had concerns about the scope of the bill and the speed through which it’s moved through the Legislature. Because of that, the freshman lawmaker said voting for the bill would go against everything she stood for before coming to the Capitol. 

“When this bill passes, as I am confident it is going to pass, I will do everything in my ability to make it a success as I firmly believe the people in District 12 do as well because we have to,” Duke said. “We cannot fail. It has to be a success.”


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.