Arkansas House advances LEARNS Act; returns to Senate

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 3,234 views 

The Arkansas House of Representatives on Thursday (March 2) advanced Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act, returning the bill for a concurring amendment to the Senate, where it seems certain to pass next week.

Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, passed 78-21 with Rep. Ron McNair, R-Harrison, voting present.

Three Republicans voted against the bill: Reps. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe; Hope Duke, R-Gravette; and Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley. No Democrat voted for the bill.

The bill now returns to the Senate, which on Feb. 23 advanced it 25-7 with two not voting and one voting present. The Senate must concur in an amendment included in the House version. The Senate Education Committee will consider the bill on Monday and then it must once again pass the full Senate, meaning it likely will be on the governor’s desk by midweek.

The 145-page bill 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 while also providing increased support, among its many other provisions.

The vote occurred after an hour and half of discussion and debate beginning with the presentation by the House sponsor, Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock.

Brooks said the state needs to provide alternative opportunities for families.

“Today we’re building the house of education,” he said. “LEARNS is the blueprint, and with its passage we’re pouring the foundation for positive change for generations to come. This bill is not the end of our work, but it’s the beginning of a transformation which makes a covenant with teachers, with families, and most of all with students in our great land of opportunity, that we will not waver on the path of leading in education.”

Among those speaking against the bill were Rep. Tara Shephard, D-Little Rock, a former Little Rock School Board member who said the state had promised bold actions when it took over her district. Instead, she said, two high schools closed and test scores fell.

“I close with, use the Little Rock School District as an example of what will happen with the state’s bold plan,” she said.

Wooten, a retired football coach, said the bill will inevitably divert funds away from public schools.

He said public schools serve all students and offer food and clothes to help those less fortunate. He said schools do their jobs despite dealing with societal challenges. Private schools won’t accept all students including those with special needs. Furthermore, he said, the bill will increase racial segregation.

“We’re headed right down the path to back to where we were 50 years ago,” he said.

Wooten said he had received more than 125 emails from teachers saying he should vote against the bill.

Duke said her constituents had questioned the bill’s scope, the speed with which it is being passed, and its financial impacts on local school districts and the state.

Others spoke in favor of the bill. Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers, said that almost all education stakeholders who testified about the bill before the House Education Committee said they agreed with 70%, 80% or 90% of it. He said no bill is perfect and that this achieves a compromise.

“I believe that 70% good or 80% good or 90% good is good,” he said. “I believe that we all agree that what we are currently doing is not working. And we … absolutely must do everything in our power to improve our student outcomes for future generations of Arkansans and so that they can flourish.”

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, called the bill bold and transformative. He said the doomsday scenarios claimed by opponents have not occurred in other states.

“What in the world is so terrible about parents getting to choose the school where their children attend and allowing the tax dollars to follow the student to that school?” he said. “Do we honestly think that the politicians and the government are going to do a better job allocating those resources than the parents will?”