Arkansas governor’s education package returns to Senate for final legislative approval

By: - March 6, 2023 6:39 pm
Arkansas state Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) answers questions from fellow senators Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, about the governor's education overhaul bill, also known as Arkansas LEARNS. Davis is lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294. The bill, filed late Monday and heard in committee on Wednesday, passed the Senate by a vote of 25-7, with one senator voting present and two not voting. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/23/2023)

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)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ sweeping education bill will again be considered by the Arkansas Senate Tuesday, following committee approval Monday.

Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, is expected to clear the Senate and become law this week.

Sanders said in a statement that she’ll sign the bill into law as soon as the Senate approves the amended version. The Senate passed the legislation a few weeks ago, but because the bill was tweaked in the House, the Senate must concur with the amendment.

Making wide-ranging changes to the state’s education system has been a priority for the newly elected Republican governor. The LEARNS Act addresses teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, “indoctrination,” a new voucher program and a variety of other topics. 

Because SB 294 contains an emergency clause, the majority of the provisions would go into effect as soon as it’s signed into law. A few provisions would be implemented later this year.

For example, the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act would be effective June 30. The creation of funds to support the bill’s initiatives, like an increase to teacher minimum salaries, would go into effect July 1.

Little Rock Central High School students pack the school’s courtyard during a 20-minute walkout on Friday in protest of the LEARNS Act. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Twelve members of the public provided testimony during the Senate Education Committee’s meeting Monday, including ten Little Rock Central High School students. 

Many of them said the amendments were insufficient, but when they tried to discuss other parts of the bill, Chair Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) said they could only discuss the amendments, effectively ending their testimony, which was already limited to two minutes. 

Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland said she was disappointed with how the students were treated.

“By talking to them and cutting them off in this way, believe me, you are giving them much more of a platform than you would have if you had just listened to their criticism of the amendments in the first place,” Noland said. “They showed up after school on their own time to tell you that these amendments do not satisfy their concerns. That is speaking on the amendments.” 

Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) said he understood the process was frustrating, but the committee was just following the rules.

“We can only consider the amendment that is here, vote it up or down,” Dotson said. “So that’s what we’re considering, that’s what we’re discussing today and just want to make sure that everyone in the room is aware of that. But thank you very much for coming and participating in the process.” 

More than 1,000 Little Rock Central High School students walked out of class Friday in protest of the LEARNS Act. Students plan to host another rally on the Capitol steps Wednesday.


The 145-page bill was first made public Feb. 20 and passed through the Senate after three days. An amended version of the bill worked its way through the House last week.

A popular piece of the legislation is the proposal to raise the base teacher salary in Arkansas from $36,000 to $50,000. It also requires each teacher — even those earning more than the minimum — to receive a $2,000 pay raise next year. 

While many applauded the pay raises, they criticized the elimination of the mandatory teacher salary schedule, which rewards more-experienced teachers. 

In response, an amendment to the bill now requires districts to adopt a salary schedule to be eligible for state aid to fund the increased salary demands.

The proposed amendment also requires public school district employees’ contracts to include that they have a right to a notice of a recommendation for termination from a superintendent and an opportunity for a hearing before the school board.

Additionally, the amendment adds language to clarify that the bill does not prohibit school boards from specifying timelines and processes for providing notices and hearing opportunities.

These changes were in response to requests to specify what rights educators will have with the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. 

Under the Fair Dismissal law, teachers must be notified by May 1 whether or not the district plans to rehire them. If a teacher is 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. 

Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, looks at Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, as he answers questions about the bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning, Feb. 22, 2023, in Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Sen. Breanne Davis looks at Education Secretary Jacob Oliva as he answers questions about the SB 294 during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Eliminating Teacher Fair Dismissal was the number one thing requested by superintendents because “they cannot get teachers out of the classroom that should not be in the classroom because of that,” sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis said during a Feb. 22 hearing.

Another contentious component of 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.

Supporters say it will allow students to go to a school that best fits their needs. Opponents argue it will negatively impact small rural schools who may have to close if their enrollment declines due to students transferring to other schools.

The Public Education Reorganization Act, approved in 2004, requires the Department of Education to publish a consolidation list of all districts with fewer than 350 students. Districts on the list may voluntarily agree to consolidate with or be annexed to another district. 

The Senate on Monday unanimously approved a bill to address this concern. Sponsored by Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn), Senate Bill 262 would allow schools with less than 350 students to voluntarily consolidate, but it would no longer be required. 

SB 262 will next be heard by a House committee.


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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.