Governor’s education bill filed with 25 GOP Senate, 55 GOP House sponsors

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 3,937 views 

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act was filed late Monday (Feb. 20) with enough sponsors to ensure passage.

The 144-page Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, has 24 co-sponsors along with Davis in the 35-member Senate and 55 co-sponsors in the 100-member House of Representatives. All the sponsors are Republicans. You can read the bill here.

It will be considered Wednesday (Feb. 22) in the Senate Education Committee.

Among its major provisions are a minimum teacher salary of $50,000 with potential performance bonuses, a school choice plan allowing families to apply state funding to a non-public education, and a prohibition of schools teaching critical race theory or teaching anything related to sex, sexual orientation or gender identity until the sixth grade. Students who don’t meet reading standards in the third grade would be retained unless they have an exemption.

A fiscal impact of the bill has not been filed yet and was not provided.

The bill would require teachers to be paid a minimum base salary of $50,000, up from the current $36,000. Teachers next school year would be required to receive salary increases of at least $2,000 above their current salary as of Sept 1, 2022.

A Merit Teacher Incentive Fund Program would award annual bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers who demonstrate outstanding growth in student performance. The bonuses would be determined by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.

DESE would calculate a value-added growth model score and develop rules for school districts to report data that would include student test scores, prior student performance, teachers serving as mentors to other teachers, and teachers entering shortage areas according to subject or geography.

In another provision, the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program would give participating families access to up to 90% of the prior year’s statewide foundation funding, which would be nontaxable. Current year foundation funding is $7,413. For the upcoming school year, the Department of Education would make payments from each student’s account. Starting in the 2024-25 school year, the department would develop a system for parents to direct funds to participating schools and service providers.

The program would begin enrolling students this upcoming school year and be fully implemented by the 2025-26 school year. Eligible students the first year would be those with a disability, homeless students, foster children or former foster children, participants in the Succeed Scholarship Program, children of active-duty military personnel, new kindergarten students, and those enrolled during the previous school year in a school with an “F” rating or classified as in need of Level 5 – Intensive support by DESE.

A maximum of 1.5% of of the 2022-23 total public school enrollment could participate in the 2023-24 school year. That number would increase to 3% the next school year and would expand to include students in public schools rated “D” along with the children of veterans, military reservists, first responders and law enforcement officers. For the 2025-26 school year and years following, all students would be eligible provided funding is available.

To participate, private schools would have to be approved by the State Board of Education and either be accredited or on their way to being accredited within four years. They would have to be financially sound, remain academically accountable to parents, and employ or contract only with teachers with baccalaureate degrees or have equivalent documented experience, among other requirements. Participating schools would annually assess students using an assessment approved by the State Board, including the one required for students attending pubic schools or a State Board-approved norm-referenced test measuring at least literacy and math.

Qualifying expenses in 2023-24 would include tuition, fees, testing costs, school uniform costs, supplies and technology. In 2024-25, additional qualifying expenses would include instructional or tutoring services, curriculum, courses for college credit or career training, transportation costs and others.

The State Board of Education would adopt rules for determining student and provider eligibility and would establish a process for conducting audits of entities receiving funds. Each year, it would conduct random audits of individuals, participating service providers, and participating schools.

The bill would remove the current maximum of 3% school choice transfers out of any district.

The bill would prevent public school teachers from instructing on sexually explicit materials, sexual reproduction or intercourse, gender identity or sexual orientation until the sixth grade at the earliest.

It also requires the Secretary of Education to review the Department of Education’s rules, polices and communications to identify any items that could “indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as ‘CRT,’ that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law.”

Public schools could not communicate that people with various characteristics, including race, sex, and others, are inherently inferior or superior or should be discriminated against.

Elsewhere in the bill, students who don’t meet reading standards by grade three would not be promoted to fourth grade unless they have a good-cause exemption, including limited English proficiency, a disability, have received interventions for more than two years and still lack proficiency or were previously retained, or if they can demonstrate they are successful readers.

The bill would give students the chance to earn a diploma through a career-ready pathway developed by DESE that would include academic courses and also career and technical studies aligned with high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas. At least one pathway in each district would be aligned with state and regional workforce needs. The diploma would have the same status as a standard diploma. Students in grades 6-8 would be exposed to career awareness and exploration activities.

The bill also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a long-running legal protection that sought to ensure teachers were given due process to appeal being fired.

The LEARNS Act also would give the State Board of Education authority to administer the state’s early learning and education system. It would create within the Department of Education the Office of Early Childhood, which would be responsible for all programs funded with state or federal dollars that provide early childhood services. It would transfer the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Education.

The LEARNS Act would require that a school safety expert review and advise school districts regarding architectural plans before new facility constructions.

School districts would be required to establish a behavioral threat assessment team and create safety and security teams to review emergency operations plans and security policies and procedures.

Districts would be required to work with law enforcement to develop plans to increase the presence of law enforcement on all campuses and to implement strategies to promote reporting of suspicious behaviors and threats. They would be required to establish systems enabling direct communication with local law enforcement personnel.

The bill also would establish an Arkansas Teacher Academy for colleges and universities to train teachers, with scholarships available. Academy attendees would have to agree to serve a year teaching in a public school for every year they receive a scholarship. They would have to reimburse the Division of Higher Education for each year they don’t complete.

The bill also would create the Transportation Modernization Grant Program for public schools, childcare providers, cities, towns and other entities.

It would remove the requirement that high school students complete at least one digital learning class. It also would require students in grades 9-12 to complete 75 hours of community service to graduate, and it would provide staff up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

The bill does not address a pay increase for non-teaching personnel, such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, or custodians.