House Education committee quizzes LEARNS sponsor on bill’s details

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,589 views 

Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act will be the largest investment in public schools in Arkansas history, the House sponsor told members of the House Education Committee Tuesday (Feb. 28), but members had questions about the bill’s funding and other elements.

Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, would increase minimum teacher salaries to $50,000, establish “education freedom accounts” giving families access to state per pupil foundation funding for non-public schooling, and hold back third graders who fail to score proficient in literacy, among its many other provisions.

Members spent the morning questioning Brooks along with Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva and State Budget Director Robert Brech. The afternoon session was to be focused on listening to the 94 members of the public who had signed up to comment. The committee expects to vote on the bill Wednesday (March 1).

Passage of the bill seemed a virtual certainty, as 12 of the 20 committee members, including Brooks, are sponsoring it. Fifty-five of the 100 members of the House are sponsors. In the Senate, 25 of the 35 members are sponsors.

The bill has passed the Senate but will need to return to that chamber to concur with an amendment added in the House.

Early in his opening presentation, Brooks said, “Arkansas LEARNS is our call to arms,” referring to the necessity of improving Arkansas’ schools.

Seeking to dispel criticism that the bill had been rushed, he said he had been part of numerous conversations last summer where constituent concerns were shared with Gov. Sanders. The working group that helped draft the legislation grew to almost a quarter of the House and Senate, he said.

Brooks said a six-page amendment he had filed Friday addressed some of the concerns raised by senators and others in what is now a 145-page bill. Among the changes he had made was ensuring fired teachers have a right to a hearing before a school board. That concern was raised because the bill would repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned how the money would be available to pay for the education freedom accounts. She noted that in the third year there would be no limits after participation is limited to 1.5% the first year and 3% the second. She said the costs are unknown and questioned how public schools would be affected.

In response, Brech said the costs would be $47 million in year one and $97 million in year two. He projected costs would be $175 million in year 3 and $178 million in year four.

“If those are the numbers that you choose to put in in FY ’26 and ’27, the model works,” he said.

If demand exceeds available funding, then the accounts would be prorated, Brech later said. But Flowers said in that first exchange the program is being sold as being available to everyone.

The bill includes a provision allowing teachers up to $10,000 in performance pay increases. Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, noted the fiscal impact statement indicated $10 million was available for that expense, meaning only 1,000 teachers could access the full amount. Brooks responded that the money would be prorated if too many teachers qualified.

Brooks said studies have shown that providing parents money to educate their kids using nonpublic options works, an assertion disputed by Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville. She said the state should focus on proven strategies like addressing poverty using wraparound services, after-school and summer enrichment, and early childhood and pre-kindergarten services.

Brooks told legislators the bill would create the Office of Early Childhood as part of the Arkansas Department of Education. Oliva said the state has a fragmented early childhood system marked by deserts and islands. Policymakers want to ensure every parent has access to an early learning environment, he said.

The amendment filed Friday also requires schools to adopt a salary schedule. The bill as originally written raises teacher salaries but removes the salary step schedule that pays teachers higher amounts based on their education and years of experience.

Rep. Vaught, who is not a sponsor of the bill, questioned if money would be available to help small schools pay the newly increased teacher salaries. Oliva, Brooks and Brech said the funding to help districts reach $50,000 will come from a different funding source that is not part of the matrix that traditionally has funded salaries and other expenses.

In response to another question about the subject from Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, a bill co-sponsor, Oliva said the bill would require school districts to set a salary schedule, but they could do it based on their needs. Brooks said 61% of the state’s districts don’t have a single step in their current schedule that exceeds $50,000, while 10% don’t have any teachers making that amount.

Vaught also asked whether federally funded teachers will also receive a raise. Brech said there is a mechanism that would allow it and that it happened previously when minimum teacher salaries were increased from $29,000 to the current $36,000.

In response to a question by Rep. Hope Duke, R-Gravette, Oliva said if there is an unintended consequence in that regard, the state will work with the district to ensure it doesn’t have to do a reduction in force.

Rep. Ron McNair, R-Harrison, questioned how policymakers would compare public schools using one student assessment to private schools that, under the bill, could be using that assessment or another norm-referenced test.

“It appears there’s going to be lots of rulemaking. … It seems like when the bill passes out, then we’re going to decide how it’s going to work,” he said.

Rep. Duke said her constituents have been asking why the bill has been written so broadly and is being pushed through the legislative process so quickly. She said constituents are saying the process is too much like what happens in Washington, D.C. Brooks said the state’s educational challenges are significant and require an aggressive, bold approach.

Rep. Flowers asked why the bill prohibits the teaching of critical race theory, an academic theory stating that race is a social construct and that racism is endemic in American laws and institutions. She asked why other theories are not being banned. Oliva said historical topics should be addressed factually and accurately.

The amendment filed Friday also says school board discussions about school safety will be conducted privately in executive session. The change addressed a concern raised last week by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, about a section that required school board members to review school safety plans but also says those plans are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. School board members currently can only use executive sessions to discuss issues about specific personnel.