A bill that supporters said Wednesday would overhaul the state’s education system was signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
During a noon signing ceremony, the governor signed SB294, the Arkansas LEARNS bill, into law at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
Gov. Sanders said the bill, which takes effect immediately, will provide a change in the current system.
“When I put my signature on this bill, the failed status quo will end,” Gov. Sanders said.
The State Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to the bill, sending the bill to Gov. Sanders for her signature Wednesday.
The 26-8 vote around 3:40 p.m. Tuesday capped a nearly month-long debate over the issue.
SB294, which had 55 House and 25 Senate co-sponsors, was approved by the state House March 2, with the amended version approved by the Senate Education Committee Monday.
The bill would set a $50,000 salary for teachers in the state, provide a $2,000 pay raise, hire literacy coaches for children in need and provide school choice options for students to attend public, private or homeschool among other things.
The bill’s approval by the legislature also provides a major legislative victory for Gov. Sanders, who was elected last November with 63 percent of the vote.
Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville), who was the lead Senate sponsor, said Tuesday the vote capped a real big day for the state and will empower parents and children on education issues.
“As state leaders, we, sometimes, our work is hard and uncomfortable. This isn’t an us vers. them, red vers. blue, teachers vers. legislature. This is about all of us working together and rooting for the success of our children. It’s all hands-on deck and we all have a part to play,” Sen. Davis said.
Sen. Fred Love (D-Little Rock), who voted against the bill, said he believed while there were good parts to the bill, he also believed the bill could create a result of segregating schools like the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
“First, I do want to say that there are a lot of good elements to this bill – teachers’ raises, parts in regards to mental health and reading. But I would say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. What do I mean by that? This is what I mean,” Sen. Love said. “Using vouchers for school choice is nothing new. We saw this when Brown v. Board of Education was enacted. Vouchers were used, when we were told we had to integrate schools. Now, you probably ask when is Sen. Love bringing this up. I am not going to speak to the intent of anybody, but I am going to speak to the results.”
Later in the debate, Sen. Davis countered she believed that the bill would help provide much needed choice for students and their families.
“It matters to our kids, people who need a different choice in school. It matters to our teachers, that need, desperately need support in the classroom, for all of the hard work they do with our kids every single day,” Sen. Davis said. “It will provide that support to failing schools, to teachers, to kids, to families, empower them. This is a really big day in Arkansas. It is really meaningful because our vote is symbolic of the future, it is symbolic of why we’re down here, the hard work that we do every day. It matters to the 65 percent of kids in our state who cannot read.”
During the debate in the past few weeks, opponents have also threatened legal action on the bill, alleging several portions of the bill violate state law and the Arkansas Constitution.
However, Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) countered the bill would provide key opportunities to attract people to the teaching profession as well as address a teacher shortage in the state with the $50,000 salary and pay raises.
Sen. Irvin said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have worked on education for a long time and that the work will continue with the school adequacy study that continues.
Local senators voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro), Blake Johnson (R-Corning) and Dave Wallace (R-Leachville).
With the bill being signed into law, it will be up to state education officials to implement the new law.
Officials have also said they will be speaking with superintendents, teachers and other stakeholders on the issue as rules are being implemented.
Area superintendents said Thursday they are looking forward to the next step in the process.
"We are awaiting the rules and regulations process in order to see how the law will be implemented in our school. One of the focal points of this law includes a focus on literacy improvement," Greene County Tech Superintendent Scott Gerrish said. "GCT is already taking steps to make sure early literacy and reading have a focus and welcome any law that supports those efforts."
"Today (Wednesday) SB294, also known as the Arkansas LEARNS Act, was signed into law. The goals of this bill include efforts to improve literacy performance, strengthen career and workforce readiness programs, improve school safety, and address the starting salaries for teachers in Arkansas. The next steps will include the rulemaking process which is designed to address implementation efforts moving forward," Paragould Superintendent Dr. Nick Jankoviak said.
"There is a great deal of information in the Arkansas LEARNS Act. I will continue to work closely with superintendents across the state to review and discuss this information. As a public school superintendent, I continue to advocate for researched based sustained school improvement efforts in public schools. The hard working, dedicated public school employees in Greene County should be proud of the quality education provided to students in our community," Dr. Jankoviak said. "As educators, we will continue efforts to ensure all students and families achieve at high levels. Improvement efforts should be centered around utilizing data to inform the decision-making process. I believe achievement is accomplished through partnerships that promote stakeholder input, high quality professional development, relationships, and expanded learning time and opportunities."
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