Gov. Sanders reveals more details of LEARNS plan, omnibus education bill could be filed next week

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 6,293 views 

Five and a half weeks into the legislative session, Gov. Sarah Sanders and lawmakers have yet to produce a much-hyped omnibus education bill, but they are close. On Wednesday (Feb. 8), Sanders revealed more details of her proposal amidst a backdrop of Republican sponsors who are committed to backing the measure.

Flanked by GOP senators and representatives at the foot of the stairwell to the Arkansas House of Representatives, Sanders said she planned to increase starting teacher pay in the state from $36,000 to $50,000. The starting teacher pay would move Arkansas from 48th to 4th in state rankings.

More than 15,000 teachers would also receive a pay raise to the $50,000 threshold and teachers over that salary floor could receive an immediate pay raise of $2,000, according to sources. Sanders’ plan would also reward “good teachers” – a phrase that is undefined – with potential $10,000 bonuses. The governor said her bill will also have an option to forgive student loans for teachers who locate in high-need areas of the state. It would also repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which requires that teachers be notified of their employment status before May 1st each year.

She also revealed that her voucher system for allowing public school funds to follow students to other choices would be called “education freedom accounts.” They will allow parents to spend up to 90% of per pupil spending, which could be as much as $7,800 – the expected foundation formula number – on other public school choices outside of their district, charter schools, private schools, home schools and other options. The plan will be phased in over three years starting with “at-risk families first” and would eventually be universal to all students in Arkansas.

Another major component of her education plan would add 120 literacy coaches who would be deployed across Arkansas to help kids improve their reading success. K-3 students struggling with reading would also be afforded $500 per year for supplemental education services. Arkansas ranks in the bottom 10 in the nation in reading proficiency with only 30% of 4th graders attaining grade-level success, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2022 report card. Only 43% of fourth grade students in the top state in the union, Massachusetts, could read at or above a proficient level.

The LEARNS plan [Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, Safety] would also include new career ready diplomas and programs to fast-track students not seeking higher education into jobs where openings exist.

“I said I wanted to be the education governor and I’m proud to deliver on that promise,” Sanders said.

In a Q&A with reporters, she said the elements of her program have been sent to the Bureau of Legislative Research in order to prepare an omnibus bill that will include all of the aspects of her education reforms. It could be next week at the earliest before the bill is filed.

It will also have to be scored for financial impact. Sanders said she expected it to be in the $300 million range with about $150 million coming from new funding to education.

While Republican support is near universal in the state legislature, Grant Tennille, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said Democratic legislators have problems with elements of the plan that have been revealed.

“We continue to be disappointed, but not surprised that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn’t taking her job as Arkansas governor seriously. Today, Gov. Sanders unveiled some of the incomplete details about the education scheme she continues to brag about but fails to deliver on. What we do know is that she’s proposed the biggest voucher scam in the entire country, a full-on dismantling of Arkansas public schools so destructive she knew she had to dress it up with popular policies like the $50,000 teacher salary minimum that she plagiarized from Arkansas Democrats.

“We will not be bought. Unproven voucher scams like this one, likely copy-and-pasted from an out-of-state think tank, are an existential threat to Arkansas’ public schools and a sweetheart deal that will only benefit lobbyists, special interests, and the rich over everyday Arkansas students, families, and school communities. We are a hard NO on the Sanders voucher scheme,” he said.

“We are ecstatic to hear details of Gov. Sanders’ decisive reform initiative,” said Laurie Lee, chairman of The Reform Alliance. “Not only do we see a sharp focus on early childhood education to give our students a strong start, but there are tools here to empower parents to make sure their child is enrolled in an educational environment that meets their individual needs.”