Former Arkansas lawmaker, LEARNS Act co-author appointed to State Board of Education

By: - July 13, 2023 4:40 pm

Former state legislator Ken Bragg (center) speaks to reporters at a press conference at the Arkansas Capitol on Thursday, July 13, 2023 after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (right) announced his appointment to the State Board of Education. Bragg was a member of the House Education Committee during his time in office, and his wife, Beverly Bragg (left), is a retired teacher. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed former state Rep. Ken Bragg of Sheridan to the Arkansas State Board of Education on Thursday.

Bragg, a longtime advocate of school vouchers, replaces former board chair Ouida Newton, whose term expired June 30.

In a press conference, Sanders credited Bragg with co-writing her signature education legislation, the LEARNS Act, and helping to “shepherd it through this legislative session” earlier this year. Sanders said Bragg’s experience qualifies him to serve on the board and help implement the law, which includes raising teachers’ salaries and creating a school voucher program.

What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?

“It’s a complicated process, but with Ken at the wheel, I know these changes will be quick, smooth and effective,” Sanders said.

Bragg, 72, was a House member from 2013 to 2023 and declined to run for a sixth term. He served as majority leader from 2015 to 2017 and served on the House Education Committee, among others.

He called his appointment to the Board of Education “an honor and a privilege” at the press conference.

Bragg highlighted a provision of the LEARNS Act that, starting with the 9th-grade class of 2024-25, will give Arkansas students the option to earn a diploma through a career-ready pathway that aligns with high-wage, high-growth jobs. Bragg said he especially appreciates this portion of the law because he drafted legislation to create a similar program during his first year in the House.

“I was told at the time this was not possible, [that] we didn’t have the flexibility to do that in our curriculum and in our time schedules, so that idea died,” he said.

Bragg was the House sponsor of a 2019 bill that would have used $3 million in state income tax dollars to create a tax-credit scholarship program for low-income, kindergarten-through-12th-grade students. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House Education Committee after facing bipartisan opposition.

The same year, Bragg co-sponsored the Capitol Promise Scholarship Pilot Program, which would have used $3.5 million per year in public money to create a five-year pilot program funding private school tuition in Pulaski County. Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported the legislation, but a coalition of Democrats and Republicans from mostly rural districts opposed it and the bill never advanced.

The LEARNS Act creates a voucher program that will allow families to use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition or other qualified educational expenses.

Arkansas LEARNS Act again on hold following court ruling

Applications for the Educational Freedom Accounts opened in June.

The Board of Education approved emergency rules for the program at its monthly meeting Thursday. The rules will go into effect Aug. 1 and sunset in 120 days, pending approval by the Arkansas Legislative Council next week, and will later be replaced by permanent rules.

The LEARNS Act was supposed to go into effect upon being signed into law in March, but Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright ruled in June that the law’s emergency clause is invalid because it was not passed with a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority, as required by the Arkansas Constitution. 

Barring the Arkansas Supreme Court overturning the ruling, the LEARNS Act will not go into effect until Aug. 1.

Attorney General Tim Griffin has appealed Wright’s ruling and requested that his appeal be expedited.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.