Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her Arkansas LEARNS legislation into law Wednesday. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Every public school teacher in Arkansas will now make $50,000.
In three years, the Natural State will have a universal voucher program that could shake up the education landscape in unprecedented ways.
By 2025, third graders not reading at grade level could be held back.
Those are just a few of the many sweeping changes Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law through the LEARNS Act this week.
The governor’s education package has captured most of the focus from the 2023 legislative session over the last couple of weeks. With the legislative debate over, the next step will be the promulgation of the Arkansas Department of Education’s rules that will iron out many of the key details about how all these changes will be implemented.
We’ll be watching and providing updates.
Here are the high notes from Week 9 of the Arkansas General Assembly’s 2023 session:
1) Education bill
Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law on Wednesday.
It was introduced and enacted in about two-and-a-half weeks, drawing criticism about the speed a bill of its size and impact moved through the Legislature.
The bill, officially Act 237 of 2023, is 145 pages, and it can be difficult to follow for people not used to reading legislation because much of the bill is striking existing law.
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Our Antoinette Grajeda pulled together a nice explainer that condenses the bill’s main provisions into something more accessible.
With LEARNS no longer casting a shadow over the session, we expect things to speed up some and focus to shift to other topics: public safety, tax reform and more.
2) Culture wars
Each day this week brought more action on bills dealing with hot-button social issues, and one instance of surprising Republican pushback.
In that case, the Arkansas Senate approved a bill restricting the use of public bathrooms when children are present to the facility that matches a person’s gender assigned birth.
LGBTQ advocates said the bill targets transgender Arkansans, and Republican Sen. Joshua Bryant of Rogers said the bill, if enacted, will result in fully transitioned Arkansans being forced to used public bathrooms that don’t match their gender identity — a situation uncomfortable for that individual and others present.
On Wednesday, a proposed law that would open the door for medical malpractice lawsuits against Arkansas doctors who provide gender-affirming care to transgender minors gained final legislative approval.
Gov. Sanders plans to sign it, according to a spokesperson.
After failing in committee earlier in the week, a House committee on Thursday passed a bill that would open the door to criminal liability for the distribution of “obscene” content by school and public libraries after amendments.
Also on Thursday, a House committee passed a bill to require school employees in Arkansas to address students and other employees by their given names and pronouns rather than their preferred pronouns.
The Senate also narrowly passed a bill that aims to end state affirmative action programs.
Following years of debate, lawmakers passed a “compromise” bill this week to put in place a statewide policy for how the burgeoning solar industry can sell excess power back to the grid.
Net metering has long put solar generators and utility companies at odds over what rate utilities must purchase the excess solar energy for.
The bill worked its way through both chambers this week, gaining final legislative approval in the House on Thursday. It now awaits Sanders’ signature.
The details are complicated, so I’ll let our correspondent Wesley Brown explain here.
4) Other bills
Here are a few other bills of note that saw action this week:
• The Arkansas House unanimously voted to increase the Homestead Property Tax Credit from $375 a year to $425.
• A House committee voted down a bill that would have created a new exemption to Arkansas’ strict abortion ban for cases of fetal abnormalities “incompatible with life.”
• The Arkansas Senate gave final legislative approval to a bill to make it more difficult for Arkansans to petition for ballot initiatives. A similar proposal was rejected by Arkansans at the ballot box in 2020.
As legislators were promised as the bill worked its way through the Legislature, a lawsuit challenging the law was filed on Friday.
Interestingly, Republican state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest partnered with the League of Women Voters to file the lawsuit.
The suit asks that the law be declared unconstitutional because the Legislature does not have the authority to alter the Arkansas Constitution with an act.
Newly filed bills of note:
• Senate Bill 378 would remove the requirement that all public high schools employ a computer science teacher.
• Senate Bill 369 would remove a computer science course as a pre-requisite for high school graduation and instead require high school students to take at least one career or technical education course.
• House Bill 1654 would make sexual solicitation a felony.
• House Bill 1559 would prohibit public schools and colleges from requiring faculty and staff to take implicit bias training.
5) Parting shots
The General Assembly will reconvene on Monday for a week before taking a week off for Spring Break.
That means the Legislature has three full weeks of work before it’s set to recess on April 7. There’s much left to be done, including educational adequacy, balancing the state budget, referring any constitutional amendments to the 2024 ballot and more.
Gov. Sanders and lawmakers have also expressed interest in a broad public safety package and additional tax cuts.
While the Legislature is set to recess in April and come back in May to make any technical corrections or override vetoes, it could revisit that resolution and extend the regular business portion of the session beyond April 7.
Either way it’s going to be a busy few weeks at the State Capitol.
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