What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her Arkansas LEARNS legislation into law Wednesday afternoon at the state Capitol in Little Rock. The governor shakes the hand of state Rep. Keith Brooks, left, Republican, House sponsor of the Arkansas LEARNS Act, as primary sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis, Republican, looks on. At right is Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The LEARNS Act is a 145-page piece of legislation signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders Wednesday. The broad bill makes changes to multiple aspects of the state’s education system, including teacher pay, per-student funding, graduation requirements and annual student testing.
Here are some details on the major parts of the bill:
- Tuition, fees, testing, school supplies and uniforms.
- 2024-25 and beyond:
- Year 1 expenses, plus tutoring, curriculum, course fees, college admission exams.
- Career training courses, training and certification fees.
- Technological devices used to meet a participating student’s educational needs.
- School transportation costs.
- Fees for account management by participating service providers.
- Any other education costs approved by the state Department of Education.
Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program
- A voucher program phased in over three years.
- Provides up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, including private-school tuition.
- Requires participating schools to administer annual, approved assessments (testing).
- Requires random, annual audits of individual accounts and participating schools.
- Removes the limit on the number of charter schools in the state.
- Removes the 3% cap on school choice transfers unless a district is under a desegregation order.
- Absorbs the Succeed Scholarship Program (The program provides about $7,400 for private tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families).
- In 2023-24, participation in the Educational Freedom Account program will be capped at 1.5% of the current total public school enrollment in the state. Eligible students are:
- Students with disabilities.
- Students experiencing homelessness.
- Foster children.
- Children of active duty military members.
- Students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or school in need of Level 5 support.
- Students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.
- In 2024-25, the cap will increase to 3% of the current total public school enrollment. Eligibility will expand to include:
- Students at “D”-rated schools.
- Children of veterans, military reservists or first responders.
- In 2025-26, all students are eligible to participate and there will be no caps on the program.
Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program Act
- The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program provides private-school scholarships for students whose families make no more than 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,000 a year for a family of four in Arkansas). The program is funded by tax-deductible contributions from individuals and corporations.
- Increases total amount of state income tax credits from $2 million to $6 million.
- Tax credits will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Raises the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.
- Removes the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers with more education and experience, but encourages districts to set their own salary schedules.
- Requires teachers to be paid at least $2,000 more for the 2023-24 school year.
- Creates a fund to support teacher minimum salary levels and teacher raises.
- Requires districts to use at least 80% of the amount allocated for personnel salaries, according the adequacy funding matrix, to qualify for state funds to support the increase.
- Allows schools to apply for a waiver if this would cause them to go into fiscal distress.
- Repeals incentives for teacher recruitment in high priority districts.
- Creates the Merit Teacher Incentive Fund, which will provide annual bonuses of up to $10,000 for eligible teachers.
- Repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and Public School Employee Fair Hearing Acts.
- Specifies that employees have a right to notice of a recommendation for termination from the public school district superintendent and a hearing before the school board.
- Superintendents and principals will make employment decisions based on performance and effectiveness, not seniority or tenure.
- Superintendents must consult with teachers before hiring a principal.
- School boards can employ one or more assistant superintendents.
Paid Maternity Leave
- Public schools that elect to provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for full-time employees with a biological or adopted child share the cost 50/50 with the state.
Arkansas Teacher Academy
- An eligible postsecondary institution shall implement an Arkansas Teacher Academy to encourage people to enter the teaching profession and commit to teaching in Arkansas public schools or critical shortage areas based on subject areas or geographical areas.
- An Arkansas Teacher Academy may include a new or existing teacher prep program.
- Creates the Teacher Academy Scholarship Program.
- Academy attendees agree to teach at least one full school year in a public school or in a school that serves primarily public school students with disabilities for each year they complete and receive a scholarship.
- Creates the Arkansas Teacher Academy Scholarship Program Fund, which will be used, among other things, for a marketing and promotion plan to recruit and retain students and teachers, prioritizing attendees who reflect the diversity of the state’s student and teacher population.
Student Loan Repayment
- The State Teacher Education Program will repay federal student loans of $6,000 (up from $3,000) per year for a maximum of three years for licensed teachers who graduated after April 2004 and teach in public school in a subject area designated by Arkansas Department of Education as having a critical shortage of teachers, located in a geographical area with shortage.
- Removes an additional $1,000 per year for a maximum of three years for a licensed teacher who is a minority.
Arkansas High-Impact Tutoring Pilot Program
- Beginning with the 2023-24 school year, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education will administer the new program, which will include determining a process for providing grant funding to public school districts and open-enrollment public charter schools providing in-school tutoring.
- Participating schools must provide a funding match.
- Literacy screening is required for K-3 students.
- Every K-3 teacher in a “D”-rated or “F”-rated school will have access to literacy coaches.
- Students who don’t meet the third-grade reading standard by the 2025-26 school year will not be promoted to 4th grade.
- There are exemptions for students with limited English proficiency, disabilities or students who were already retained in kindergarten through third grade.
- Students who are held back or promoted with a waiver will get at least 90 minutes of literacy instruction every day.
- $500 tutoring grant will be available on a first-come, first-served basis with priority to those to be held back in third grade.
- By the 2023-24 school year, schools must develop a math intervention plan for 3rd-8th graders not performing at grade level.
- By the 2024-25, each district must report the type of math interventions they’re using and the number of students receiving them.
- The education secretary can review Department of Education rules, policies, materials and communications and amend or annul those that promote “indoctrination” or Critical Race Theory.
- This mandate doesn’t prohibit the discussion of public policy issues of the day.
- Employees and students shall not be required to attend CRT training.
- Requires child sexual abuse and human trafficking prevention instruction.
- Schools must provide teachers with training and notify parents when sex abuse and human trafficking education will occur.
- Parents may review the material and opt their kid out.
- Before grade 5, teachers shall not provide instruction on sexually explicit materials, sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, gender identity or sexual orientation.
School Transformation Contracts
- Public school districts with a “D”-rating or “F”-rating, or in need of Level 5 – Intensive Support will be exempt from state takeover if they partner with an open-enrollment public charter school or another entity that’s approved by the State Board and in good standing to create “a public school district transformation campus.”
- The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education may provide financial incentives to support transformations.
- Starting with the 9th-grade class of 2024-25, students will have the option to earn a diploma through a career-ready pathway that aligns with high-wage, high-growth jobs.
- It will have the same status as a regular diploma.
- Beginning in the 2026-27 school year, students will be required to complete 75 hours of community service to graduate.
- There are waivers to the community service requirement for extenuating circumstances like major illness, homelessness or if the student is a major contributor to family income.
- Starting in the 2023-24 school year, a student success plan or individualized education program shall include a recommended sequence of courses for completion of a diploma pathway selected by the student.
- School districts must provide awareness activities like field trips in grades 6-8 and hold informational meetings in grades 6-12.
- Repeals the requirement for high school students to take one digital course to graduate.
- Creates the Course Choice Program, which allows students in “C”-rated through “F”-rated schools that don’t offer a certain course to take it elsewhere.
- Funding is available for these classes; the per course amount is up to one-sixth of 90% of the per-student funding amount.
Transportation Modernization Grant Program
- For public school districts; open-enrollment charter schools; early childhood care and education programs; and cities, towns or other entities deemed eligible by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
- Provides funding that can be used for resource sharing with neighboring districts, rideshare programs or using fleet vehicles for more efficient routing.
- Requires at least 25% of grants be awarded to rural and remote public school districts, unless an insufficient number of proposals from qualified rural or remote districts are submitted.
School resource officers must complete:
- 40 hours of basic school resource officer training within 18 months of hiring.
- Youth mental health training every four years.
- 16-hour refresher course every four years.
- 12 hours of public school-specific continuing education annually.
Public schools and open-enrollment charter schools must:
- Conduct a comprehensive school safety assessment every 3 years.
- Conduct an annual lockdown drill.
- Provide floor plans and emergency contact information to appropriate first responders.
The State Board of Education will:
- Expand its duties to include administering the state’s early learning and education system.
- Facilitate the creation of the Unified Early Childhood Care and Education System.
- Create a parent-friendly website that includes information on locally-available schools and centers near their homes.
The Office of Early Childhood will be:
- Created within the Department of Education and report to the Secretary of Education.
- Responsible for all state and federally-funded programs that provide childhood care or educational services including state preschool.
The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education will be:
- Transferred from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Education.
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