Senate sends LEARNS Act to governor, bill signing planned for Wednesday

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 3,567 views 

The Arkansas Senate passed Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act Tuesday (March 7), paving the way for her to sign the bill in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony at noon on Wednesday.

Following passage of the bill, Sanders’ office released a statement.

“Today’s final passage of the biggest, boldest, most conservative education reforms in America makes Arkansas a blueprint for the country. Arkansas LEARNS will raise teacher pay, empower parents, and give our students the skills to succeed in life. These changes can’t come soon enough,” she said.

“I’m deeply grateful for the legislators who worked around the clock to pass Arkansas LEARNS by massive margins: 78-21 in the House and 26-8 in the Senate. I’m ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long. Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas,” Sanders added.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 294 by Sen. Brianne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock. The bill had already passed the Senate but had been amended in the House.

The amendment was adopted on a voice vote, and then 26 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, while only two Republicans, Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, voting no. The Senate’s six Democrats also voted no. Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, was on leave.

Davis noted the amendment clarified a school employee’s right to notice of a recommendation for termination from the superintendent along with an opportunity for a hearing before the school board. The amendment also said that school safety plans can be discussed in a school board’s executive session, where they are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It also said school districts must adopt a salary schedule.

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 to use 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.

It was filed Feb. 20, 15 days before this final step in sending it to the governor.

In closing for the amendment, Davis said, “This is the most collaborative and comprehensive process that I have been part of, and this is just the beginning of the work.”

She said the Department of Education would put together working groups composed of educators who would help produce the rules associated with the legislation.

In other business, the Senate advanced a bill that would allow electric utilities to pay wholesale rather than retail rates to solar customers who produce excess electricity that is fed into the grid.

Senate Bill 295 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, and Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, would reduce reimbursements to solar users for the power they generate, a practice known as net-metering. The practice was established by legislation in 2019.

Dismang said costs are being shifted from those solar users to other customers who cannot afford to install solar panels. He said the bill had been amended to allow solar panel arrays to be built within 100 miles of the user’s facilities. Before the amendment, the bill stated that arrays would have been built within five miles of the facilities. Projects would be capped at 5 megawatts. Current customers and those who connect next year would continue to be paid retail rates.

Dismang said the bill would not shut down Arkansas’ solar industry and that other states are more constrictive.

“There is nothing free market about requiring an entity to buy something that they may not need at a location they don’t need it, and that’s net-metering,” he said.

The bill has the support of Entergy Arkansas and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.

It passed, 24-9. Joining five Senate Democrats in voting no were Republican Sens. Alan Clark of Lonsdale, Mark Johnson of Little Rock, Matt Stone of Camden, and David Wallace of Leachville. Sen. Fred Love, D-Mablevale, voted present while Caldwell was on leave.

The bill now goes to the House Insurance & Commerce Committee, where a mirror House bill has been working its way through that chamber.