The House voted 78-21, with one voting present, to approve the Arkansas LEARNS Act SB294 bill.
The debate Thursday capped a week of discussions in the House over the bill, which now heads back to the Senate to approve a House amendment.
Supporters said the bill would create school choice options for students, increase teacher salaries to $50,000 a year, provide a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and provide literacy coaches to students in need among other items.
The House Education Committee began meeting Tuesday on the bill. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keith Brooks (R-Little Rock), said during the meeting that the bill would provide options for parents and students.
“We have, before us, the opportunity of a generation. The opportunity to do something transformational. The opportunity to look our collective selves as a state in the mirror and to declare, no longer, will we leave our kids behind,” Brooks said. “No longer will accept anything but the best. No longer will we shortchange our teachers. No longer will we leave our parents in the dark. No longer will we do anything but break down every barrier that stands in the way for the kids of Arkansas to lead. Anything less than that is no longer acceptable.”
The committee met for nearly seven hours Tuesday to hear from about 100 people, who spoke in favor or against the bill.
The debate over the bill continued Wednesday as the committee approved the bill.
On Thursday, the bill went to the House floor as about 20 representatives spoke about the bill. No Northeast Arkansas lawmakers spoke for or against the bill on the House floor Thursday.
Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe), who spoke against the bill, said he believes the bill would jeopardize education funding.
“Right is right. And wrong is wrong. And this is wrong,” Wooten said.
Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker (R-Smackover) said she believes the bill will help children, including her own grandchild, with special needs to get the attention they need.
Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) said she believes the bill “jeopardizes our public school system with a voucher scheme.”
Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle), who spoke in favor of the bill, said the state has worked in the past eight years, under former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to increase teacher pay by 23 percent and that the bill would be a “game changer” in recruiting new teachers.
Ray, while saying money only will not solve the issues in education, said the bill would also provide a massive investment in education in the state, creating an opportunity for a bold, transformative education system.
Debate over the bill
The debate over the bill reached a fever pitch in the past week or so, as groups in favor or against the bill spoke on the issue.
Opportunity Arkansas, a group in support of the bill, said on its website that education reform was needed in Arkansas.
“The status quo finds kids trapped in failing schools based simply on their zip code. It has made it virtually impossible for the state to recruit top-notch teachers. And it has resulted in disastrous educational outcomes for students for generations. The LEARNS Act represents a transformative approach and would give Arkansas’ education system the jolt that it needs, completely reshaping the state’s educational landscape.”
The Arkansas Democratic Rural Caucus hosted a meeting Wednesday evening in Jonesboro to discuss the bill.
In the hour-long meeting at the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library, several of the panelists spoke against the bill.
Panelist Allison Grigsby Sweatman said she believes the process of the bill was going too fast and it needed to slow down. Supporters of the bill have countered that the idea behind SB294 has been discussed for at least a year and a half by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, first on the 2022 campaign trail.
Sanders formally introduced her plan Feb. 8 and SB294 was filed Feb. 20. The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee Feb. 22 and the Senate voted 25-7 Feb. 23 to approve the bill.
The House Education Committee began its first of two days of hearings Feb. 28, with a seven-hour hearing, and approved the bill March 1.
Gov. Sanders said late Thursday that the bill provides reform in education.
“The Arkansas House made history today by passing my Arkansas LEARNS bill by an overwhelming majority. I have my pen ready to sign the boldest, most far-reaching, most conservative education reforms in the country into law after the Senate passes this amended version early next week,” Gov. Sanders said in a statement. “These sweeping changes will address teachers’ needs, defend parents’ rights and most importantly, give our kids the quality education they deserve. Thank you to our friends in the House for their support – Arkansans can’t wait any longer for this much needed legislation.”
Sweatman said she was also concerned about the special education provisions in the bill, while another panelist, Erika Askeland, said she was “pretty angry today” about the bill.
Askeland, who is a teacher, said while she supports the idea of helping with intervention for children in grades 3-8 as part of the bill, she said she believes it could create a situation where teachers feel like they are being militarized against the administration of their school.
Other issues addressed at the meeting by the panelists included concerns over future school funding, threats of possible consolidation of districts, a lack of local control for local districts, the elimination of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, who will administer a provision in the bill that requires 75 hours of volunteer work in order to graduate high school and getting people to go into the teaching profession.
Supporters of the bill have countered that the bill would provide the largest funding request for public education in the state’s history, would empower districts with the funding to help address critical needs, provide protections that are already in state and federal law for teachers and that the volunteerism requirement would help local groups and teach children the importance of helping others. Supporters have also stressed that the state budget only covers a two-year cycle and have said funding would be made available for future years.
At the Wednesday meeting, several of the panelists predicted that the bill may face a legal challenge down the road and that it may be an issue in the 2024 election.
An official with the group, Steve Grappe, said a that his group would be watching the vote Thursday and finding opponents in next year’s general election for lawmakers who supported the bill.
“We will be taking it to them,” Grappe said.
However, several lawmakers who spoke Thursday on the House floor said they believed their vote would empower parents to make the best decision for their children and provide an education for those children.
“Wouldn’t you agree that parents know what is best for their child,” Rep. R.J. Hawk (R-Bryant) asked Wooten during the debate.
Wooten responded yes on the question; and Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock) said he believed the state was at a pivotal moment in its history.
“We deal with a lot of issues, but education is one of those issues that moves the needle,” Wing said.
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