LEARNS Act advances to House floor
Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act passed the House Education Committee Wednesday (March 1) and now heads to the full House for a vote March 2.
Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock, passed easily on a voice vote after Brooks closed for his bill and then many committee members expressed their reasons for voting for or against it.
Brooks told Talk Business & Politics that he plans to run the bill through the full House of Representatives on Thursday, March 2. Passage seemed a virtual certainty, as 55 of the 100 House members are sponsors.
The bill has already passed the Senate, where 25 of the 35 members are sponsors. The Senate will vote on the bill again next week because of an amendment added in the House, if it passes the House of Representatives.
It 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.
Brooks told the committee that the bill is “a starting point.”
“We’re launching the best and brightest and most aggressive investment in education in the history of the state of Arkansas,” he said. “It’s not where we’re ending. This is the beginning of our commitment as a state to put students first and to look everyone in the eye and say Arkansas will continue to lead in terms of education.”
Among those speaking against the bill were Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, who said the education freedom accounts would not support students with disabilities and would worsen segregation, reduce accountability, leave behind underserved communities, and potentially lead to a lawsuit against the state.
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said the bill ignores current educational successes and doesn’t fund practices and programs known to have worked.
“The fact that we are establishing policy that doesn’t feed into grow(ing), invest(ing) in our public schools, but instead really leverages the negative rhetoric that has been spewed all over Arkansas and the country, I think does a disservice to our teachers and it certainly does a disservice to our children,” she said.
Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Centerton, said the bill is expansive but “really is more than the sum of its parts.” He said he and his twin brother did not graduate from the same high school, illustrating that people need different options, and said legislators can still pass legislation to fix issues that might arise.
“Ultimately, I think, when you look at the bill in its entirety, what we all want is to finally do something that will take our state from the bottom of the rankings where we are year after year and deliver something big and bold for Arkansas and for the students,” he said.
Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, agreed that it’s time to try to do something to improve Arkansas’ educational results.
“When I listen to the question of when we say, ‘What do we know works?’ we also can ask the question, ‘What do we know does not work?’” he said. “And right now the status quo is not working.”
Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, who is not a bill sponsor, expressed uncertainty but indicated she would vote for it.
“I’ve had fears, I’ve had doubts, I’ve had questions about this bill, but I’m trusting the sponsor that if there’s problems with the bill, and there’s things that need to be changed, that we’ll work together to make sure that they get addressed and fixed at a very quick pace,” she said.