Senate education committee advances Sanders’ LEARNS Act, but amendment coming in House

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,349 views 

The Senate Education Committee voted to advance Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act Wednesday (Feb. 22), sending it to the full Senate for an expected vote Feb. 23, but with expectations that it would be amended in the House. The bill’s sponsors also revealed the price tag for the first two years of the plan.

The vote on Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, was never in doubt. All six Republicans on the eight-member Education Committee, including Davis, are listed as sponsors.

But Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, gave Davis a list of changes he would like to see made in the House, including technical corrections, a fiscal analysis, financial impacts to the retirement system, and others. He said it would be a violation of the Senate’s trust if the changes weren’t made. Davis took notes as he spoke and said “one clean amendment” would be made in the House in consultation with the Senate. The House sponsor is Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock.

Another change that would seem to be necessary is a section requiring school security plans to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. As Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, pointed out, any discussion between two school board members about school business must be done in public, with only personnel matters allowed to be discussed privately in executive session.

Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, argued the Senate should be sending as clean a bill as possible to the House, but Davis said changes should be done in consultation with the other chamber.

The bill includes an increase of the state minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, plus a $2,000 raise for all teachers and $10,000 in performance bonuses.

Davis said 39% of the state’s school districts start at $36,000, while 61% max out on their salary step schedules at under $50,000 for teachers with a bachelor’s degree. Ten percent of districts have no teachers making $50,000. The 144-page omnibus education bill also provides 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, the costs of which would be split between the state and participating districts. Davis said the raise would move Arkansas’ starting salaries from near the bottom of the national rankings to fourth.

It also cancels the state setting salary schedules for teacher pay. Davis said the proposal gives more local control for this aspect of salaries. Chesterfield said she’s afraid some districts won’t be fair in salary schedules and there will be some legal question as to whether the state needs to be in control of this process, an outcome of the long-standing Lake View court ruling.

The bill would create the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, which would give participating families access to up to 90% of the prior year’s statewide foundation funding to be used for private schooling or homeschooling.

The program would begin enrolling students this upcoming school year and be fully implemented by 2025-26. 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.

A fiscal impact statement released by the Department of Education Wednesday morning found the bill would cost $297.5 million its first year with $150 million of that being new money. In year two, the cost would be $343.3 million with $250 million being new money. There were no overall cost estimates provided for year three, when the full range of school choice options becomes universal to all students.

Of those, the biggest chunk would be the teacher salary increase, which would cost $180 million each year. The Education Freedom Accounts would cost $46.7 million in year one and $97.5 million in year two. The department anticipates 7,000 students participating in the program in year one and 14,000 in year two.

State Budget Director Robert Brech projected to the committee that the Education Freedom Accounts would cost $175 million in year three. Upon questioning, Davis explained that if year three produces more demand than lawmakers have budgeted for Education Freedom Accounts, students would be awarded funding on a lower pro rata basis than the expected 90% of foundation funding.

The bill does not include a funding mechanism, which will come in later legislation. Also coming is an increase in salaries for non-teaching personnel, but a dollar figure for increases has not been released. Democrats have pushed for a $4 per hour increase for non-teaching personnel, but that measure has been tabled until a Republican plan is released.

The LEARNS bill would prevent public school teachers from instructing on sexually explicit materials, sexual reproduction or intercourse, gender identity or sexual orientation until the fifth grade. It also requires Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva 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.”

Oliva said, “Coming up with a simple definition for ‘Critical Race Theory’ is really challenging,” which raised questions about how it would be enforced, if it cannot be defined.

Chesterfield pressed for assurance that lessons of history such as slavery being a cause of the Civil War would still be taught. As she asked the question, Davis nodded her head. Oliva said classrooms should teach accurate history according to standards and give students a chance to debate and reflect.

Elsewhere in the bill, students who don’t meet reading standards by grade three would not be promoted to fourth grade unless they have one of several exemptions. They would only be retained once.

The bill would give students the chance to earn a diploma through a career-ready pathway. It also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which will make it easier for school districts to fire teachers that they claim are underperforming.

Oliva said while public schools have much accountability for their success and failure, so do charter schools, which could be closed if not performing to expectations. Under the bill, a process for a charter school taking over an underperforming public school or school district could occur; however, the bill does not address how private schools or home school accountability for student performance may work.

The bill would seem almost certainly headed to passage. In the full Senate, 25 of the 35 members are sponsors. Twelve of the 20 members of the House Education Committee are sponsors, as are 55 members of the 100-member House of Representatives.

Democrats have indicated opposition. Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding, who sits on the education panel with Chesterfield, said, “I do like probably 60 to 70% of it, but as I’ve told a lot of people, if the last 30% of the cheeseburger is still poison, then it’s still a pretty lousy cheeseburger.”

Chesterfield praised Gov. Sanders for including some of her suggestions in the bill, but complained that Democratic senators on the committee had not seen it until Monday, while Republicans not on the committee had seen it on Friday. The bill was filed Monday evening (Feb. 20).

Davis said bill drafters had met with many stakeholders and that while the text hadn’t been available, its provisions had been well communicated with the public prior to its filing. She earlier called it “the most collaborative, comprehensive partnership on a piece of legislation that I’ve ever witnessed or ever been part of it. Nothing, not one single aspect of this bill, was a secret.”

The Senate Education Committee vote came in the afternoon after a morning session had recessed to give members of the public an additional opportunity to speak.

Dr. Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said some pieces are good while others need more clarification, such as what the rules will be, whether enough resources will be available, and whether teachers can be supported. Dennis Copeland with the Arkansas Rural Ed Association questioned the funding sustainability and wondered about unintended consequences. C.J. Jacoby, a coach at Sheridan, said the teacher pay raises would help make ends meet.