Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday signed expansive changes to Arkansas’ education system into law.
The LEARNS Act takes unprecedented steps in hopes of restructuring the state’s K-12 schools, addressing teacher pay, school safety, career readiness, literacy, a new voucher program and “indoctrination,” among other topics.
The legislation was Sanders’ main priority since taking office in January.
“Education is how we invest in our future,” Sanders said during Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s the seed we sow today knowing that only our children will have the opportunity to reap the harvest.”
Because the LEARNS Act contains an emergency clause, the majority of the provisions took effect immediately. A few provisions will be implemented later this year, such as the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which will be effective June 30.
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said his department will be “acting with urgency” as it starts developing rules to implement the LEARNS Act’s various provisions.
Oliva said he’ll be in Northwest Arkansas Friday as part of an effort to meet with superintendents and leaders across the state to discuss components of the legislation.
The new law raises the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000. It also requires each teacher — even those earning more than the minimum — receive a $2,000 pay raise next year.
A contentious component of the legislation is the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, which would provide families state funds up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, like private school tuition, tutoring and homeschool costs.
The program will have limited enrollment in the first two years before expanding to all families in the third year. It has attracted intense opposition from public school administrators and teachers.
Former educator and Senate Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) said she’s concerned about some of the bill’s provisions, including the elimination of a uniform teacher salary schedule and implementing a universal voucher program.
“LEARNS will dismantle and defund our public schools through a voucher system that has not worked anywhere ever,” McCullough said in a statement. “While some of the bill is admirable, its purported benefits will not reach our students in greatest need.”
Sanders said the Educational Freedom Account Program will encourage schools to improve.
“When parents are empowered to choose, all schools work harder to attract students,” Sanders said. “Competition breeds excellence.”
Little Rock Central High School students rallied on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon to protest the new law. The students first protested the legislation last week by publishing an open letter to Sanders and walking out of class Friday afternoon.
Ten students spoke at Monday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, but their testimony was cut short when they were told they could only speak on the amendments, not the bill as a whole.
Junior Addison McCuien said she took issue with the LEARNS Act mandate to hold back third graders who cannot read at grade level. McCuien said this provision could negatively impact dyslexic students like her.
“I wasn’t reading at a third grade level and if this bill was applied when I was in school, it would have held me back, and I think that that personally would have really disrupted my hunger to learn and really stunted my confidence in myself,” she said.
Senior Alisha Majeed said she supports public schools because they allow students to connect with diverse groups of people.
It was “a huge culture shock,” Majeed said, when she moved from New York City to Searcy, where she said she struggled as a person of color in a majority white school.
However, Majeed said her confidence in her identity has grown since moving to Little Rock Central High School where she’s connected with other students of color.
“Public schools are important for smaller communities like mine because people get to connect with other people that look like them,” Majeed said. “It’s just a place where representation is more and there is more allowed.”
McCuien and a classmate delivered a letter to the governor’s office prior to the start of the rally.
Written by Antoinette Grajeda with Arkansas Advocate
Photo Credit: John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate
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