The Senate Education Committee advanced bills Wednesday (April 14) preventing schools from transacting with abortion providers, requiring students to have a moment of silence after saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and requiring the national anthem to be sung before sporting events.
Meanwhile, it declined to endorse a bill returning school districts to local control within five years of being taken over by the state, and a bill that would treat students’ voluntary religious expression the same as secular expression.
House Bill 1592, the Arkansas Student Protection Act by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, prohibits public schools from knowingly entering into any transaction with an individual or entity that provides abortions. It passed 5-3 on a roll call vote. The panel’s five Republicans voted yes and its three Democrats voted no.
Lowery along with Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council said Freedom of Information Act requests of the Pulaski County, Little Rock and North Little Rock School Districts resulted in 1,395 pages of interactions between the Pulaski County Special School District and Planned Parenthood reaching back to 2017.
Those interactions included invitations for Planned Parenthood to provide sex education classes in school, while Planned Parenthood had asked school nurses to provide school fertility rates. School nurses were sharing specific information about how many students were pregnant and the status of their pregnancies, although they were not sharing names, Lowery said.
Jess Kelsey, communications and digital strategist with Planned Parenthood Great Plains, disputed Lowery’s comment that Planned Parenthood had asked for school fertility rates. She said the email he referenced was from one school district employee to other district employees.
“Planned Parenthood did not solicit nor receive this information,” she said. “The statement that Planned Parenthood asked for students’ fertility rates is a gross fabrication and entirely inaccurate.”
Kelsey pointed to an email on page 48 of the 1,395-page document where the school employee asked 11 other personnel for pregnancy numbers including deliveries since the beginning of the school year. The email writer said she had spoken with a woman from Planned Parenthood who had said she would call to set up a meeting regarding forming a partnership for student services.
The other two districts did not have contacts with Planned Parenthood, Lowery said.
Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit that touts itself as the nation’s largest provider of sex education. It also provides advice on methods for terminating pregnancies through in-clinic abortions and the abortion pill, according to its website.
Cox said the bill was aligned with other efforts by the Legislature to prevent public entities from transacting with abortion providers.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, noted the bill prevents individuals from transacting with the school, meaning a person’s involvement would be limited because of their employment.
The committee also advanced two bills related to public displays of patriotism in schools by Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, the former Arkansas National Guard adjutant general.
House Bill 1831 requires K-12 school districts to adopt a policy for playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at least once each week during school hours and before each school-sanctioned sporting event. Higher education institutions would be required to adopt a policy requiring the national anthem to be broadcast before sporting events.
Berry’s House Bill 1832 requires the State Board of Education to adopt a policy requiring a moment of silence in K-12 schools following the Pledge of Allegiance. Schools would also be required to lead or broadcast a recitation of the Pledge followed by a moment of silence at each school-sanctioned after-school assembly and each school-sanctioned sporting event. Teachers and school employees would be required to ensure each student remains silent while not distracting other students.
The committee voted down Senate Bill 314 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, which would require school districts under the State Board of Education’s authority to be returned to full local control within five years. The committee chair, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, ruled in favor of the no’s.
Elliott and Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it applied to any school district, not just Little Rock, which has been under state control since January 2015. They said Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to recommend the district be returned to local control soon. Elliott said school districts need certainty as to when they will be returned to local control.
Elliott along with Chesterfield, another co-sponsor, said the district was being kept under partial state control because it did not have a balanced budget. But the sponsors argued that the district was taken over by the state because it was in academic distress, and if it lacks a balanced budget, it’s the state’s fault.
Secretary of Education Johnny Key said the Department of Education opposes the bill. He said the department must ensure districts are ready to return to local control. Two districts that had been returned to local control are back under the state’s authority. He said the academic distress designation no longer exists, and that the Little Rock School District is already mostly under local control.
The committee also declined to advance House Bill 1830, the Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Act by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. Based on a Texas law passed in 2007, the law states that school districts shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject as it would a secular viewpoint. Dotson said the law could be used to protect a student speaker at a graduation ceremony.
Sen. James Sturch, R-Batesville, a social studies teacher and a member of the committee, said teachers are taught to treat religious and secular viewpoints on the same level and asked if the bill were needed. Courtney Salas-Ford, counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, said the protections are in place under the Constitution’s First Amendment and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Chesterfield, a retired educator, said teachers need to control and limit what students say in a school-sponsored program so that it conforms to the program’s purpose.
The bill died for lack of a second.
The committee also advanced Senate Bill 1501 by Irvin, which would prohibit the use of corporal punishment on a student with an individualized education program in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
It also advanced House Bill 1611 by Rep. Denise Ennett, D-Little Rock, which would require public schools to make available feminine hygiene products.