Sen. Breanne Davis, lead sponsor of the Arkansas LEARNS bill that the state says may prohibit a new AP African American Studies course, hears from Sen. Bart Hester at a hearing last spring. Jacob Oliva, Arkansas' education secretary, is at left. Brian Chilson

After a day of contentious testimony and acknowledgments that there are still issues and questions in the 144-page bill that need attention, members of the Senate Education Committee voted yes on moving Arkansas LEARNS out of committee and on to the full Senate, where it’s expected to be voted on Thursday.

Senators supportive of Gov. Sarah Sanders‘ omnibus education bill — which includes teacher raises, vouchers for all Arkansas students who want them and the end of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act — made assurances that amendments will come down the line, so don’t worry about a thing.

Advertisement

There’s no question the speed at which this massive bill has moved this week is unprecedented. It dropped at five minutes before 5 p.m. Monday, and the first hearing started at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Brian Chilson
Senators listen to testimony on Arkansas LEARNS.

Arkansas Republicans hold not only the governor’s mansion, but also both houses of the legislature. They can do what they want, whenever and however they want to, and that’s quite obviously what’s happening here. The session is young, there are many weeks to go, and the only reason to rush this to the governor’s office is so they can move on to the next bold, conservative, transformational thing on their list (new prisons and more tax cuts remain on the to-do list).

Advertisement

Not only do Republican leaders not really seem to care about the wellspring of complaints from educators and Democrats that they had only one business day to read all 144 pages and get their arguments together; lead sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) accused opponents of both lying about what’s in the bill and lying that they didn’t know what would be in it. You, complainers, are enemies of change!

“The status quo is failing our kids,” Davis said right before the vote. “If you refuse to confront the desperately needed change, even at the expense of your own comfort, you are a protector of the inadequacies of old, and you are an enemy of change.”

Advertisement
Brian Chilson
Sens. Kim Hammer (left) and Matt Stone voted yes.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) remained unswayed and voted no, along with the only other Democrat on the committee, Sen. Greg Leding of Fayetteville.

“I think when you shove a bill down our throats and say take it or leave it in less than 48 hours, you’re creating confusion,” she said.  Chesterfield said that while she really likes some of the pieces, she opposes removing step increases for teachers to make more money as they gain experience and graduate degrees. Chesterfield said the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act is necessary to protect teachers, and she’s not on board with sending public money to private schools that aren’t accountable to taxpayers.

Advertisement

The vote to pass Arkansas LEARNS to the full Senate came at the end of a long day that started early. All seats in the hearing room filled long before the Senate Education Committee’s 9 a.m. start time, and the lobby was hopping, too. Forty people signed up to speak.

Opponents and even some supporters of Sanders’ massive education overhaul bill noted it all felt like a rush job. Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), one of the bill’s many sponsors, was among them. He shared that educators and constituents were still calling, emailing and pitching questions to the governor’s office Tuesday night.

Advertisement

Chesterfield, a former teacher and the only educator on the Senate Education Committee, was clearly miffed that, while Republican supporters of the bill got a sneak peek draft as early as last Friday, she didn’t see it until Monday. The pettiness makes no sense, Chesterfield noted, because the supermajority Republicans have the votes to do pretty much whatever they please.

Davis said that while the bill wasn’t filed until Monday, people have been talking about it for a long time and everyone should have known what would be in it. A mother of three children in public schools, Davis emphasized over and over that Arkansas LEARNS is a bill mainly about helping public schools.

Advertisement

“Before I explain the details of this legislation to you, I want to address the misinformation and, to put it bluntly, the flat-out lies that have been circulating about the LEARNS act on the news, on social media platforms and sent around our communities. Please hear me loud and clear: This is a public education bill,” she said.

Filed days ago after months of speculation but only a trickle of information, Arkansas LEARNS smooshes a lot of education issues together in one package, lumping teacher raises and tutoring programs with a plan to give a voucher to any Arkansas student who wants one starting in 2026.

“I have made a commitment with Gov. Sarah Sanders, with Rep. Keith Brooks, and 24 senate co-sponsors and 54 house co-sponsors that we will no longer stand on the sideline and refuse to address the undeniable, inexcusable fact that we have failed Arkansas students,” Davis said.

Even opponents noted there’s lots to like in the bill, with its added emphasis on early literacy and pay raises for teachers. But mixing in public funding for private and home schools and ending the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act kills the buzz. I like 60-70% of the bill, Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) said, but a cheeseburger that’s 30% poison is still a bad cheeseburger.

Advertisement

Davis, Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and an attorney from the Department of Education answered Senate Education Committee members’ questions for a couple of hours before allowing members of the public to speak. Senators shared lots of messages they’d gotten from school administrators in their districts, including questions about a provision in the bill that allows charter schools to take over public schools or public school districts that earn D or F grades from the state. How long would the charters control the traditional public schools they’d taken over, and who sets the terms?

Davis and Oliva answered this question and many others by noting that the bill on the table creates more opportunity for local control. Local districts get to make those decisions, Davis said.

To Chesterfield’s question about charter schools that have earned failing grades for seven years running and continue to operate, Oliva acknowledged the Arkansas LEARNS bill promoting school choice does not address this problem of failing charter schools.

To Leding’s question about the end of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a measure that adds layers of review and protection for teachers before they can be fired, Davis said federal laws already exist that provide those protections. This explanation is at odds with news today from the governor’s office that superintendents across the state have been asking Sanders to repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. If so, the fair dismissal law surely does something.

Arkansas Association of Education Administrators Executive Director Mike Hernandez did not bring up the Teacher Fair Dismissal piece during his Wednesday testimony. Hernandez said he’s generally supportive of the bill but suggested many more questions need to be answered.

Only about a dozen people were able to squeeze in their 5-minute testimonies before the committee broke for the full Senate’s regular afternoon session, but the committee reconvened in the afternoon to hear from the rest.

Before the break, a pediatrician focused on equity and a science teacher from the Two Rivers School District hammered away at their point that vouchers to private schools won’t solve poverty, and poverty is the root of many challenges. “This will subsidize wealthy families already attending private schools,” Dr. Steven McKee said. Teacher Devon Tubbs got the whole room in trouble when his testimony elicited cheers and applause: Committee Chair Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) said she’d boot people out if it happened again.

Another teacher said making sure her students are fed and warm is her first priority every day, and she’d rather have help making sure her students are well than have a raise if it means schools that serve marginalized children will be on a path to neglect.

Supporters of the Arkansas LEARNS bill included private school students and parents whose children failed to thrive in public schools. Those parents pointed to the success they found in home schools and private schools. By 2026, the LEARNS bill would provide vouchers for 90% of per-student foundational funding, about $7,000, that could be used for home school expenses or private school tuition. A couple of teachers said the $50,000 minimum salary set in the Arkansas LEARNS bill would be positive and life-changing for them.

Afternoon testimonials focused on the provisions in the bill that allow voucher students to get kicked out of the voucher program if they do poorly. Public schools will have to take those students back? Seems problematic, they noted. Hammer later asked for this issue to addressed somehow as the bill progresses through the Capitol.

Bill Kopsky, executive director for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, noted that while supporters of the Arkansas LEARNS bill say no money will be taken away from public schools, studies of similar programs in other places show that in fact money does eventually get diverted from public schools. He noted that public education has never before been a partisan, contentious issue in Arkansas, and he appealed to both sides to figure out how to carve politics out of today’s debate. 

Olivia Gardner, education director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, echoed testimonies from others that Arkansas LEARNS will divide Arkansas students by socioeconomic status, all for a program that’s not shown to improve academic achievement. Families with enough money, time and resources will have new options, while children without the money or engaged parents those options require will be left in public schools from which money is increasingly diverted to fund school choice. “This legislation will effectively create a tiered system of education for Arkansans,” she said.

As the hearing unfolded, the governor and her staff were busy putting out their message on social media. The governor joined Davis in saying people have been lying about what’s in the LEARNS bill.

And Deputy Chief of Staff Judd Deere took to Twitter to suggest a teacher who took the day off work to testify at the Capitol was shirking her duty to children.

Deere also shared a tweet suggesting Democrats asking for more than 40 hours to read 144-page bill must think Arkansans are stupid.

 

 

50 years of fearless reporting and still going strong

Be a part of something bigger and join the fight for truth by subscribing or donating to the Arkansas Times. For 50 years, our progressive, alternative newspaper in Little Rock has been tackling powerful forces through our tough, determined, and feisty journalism. With over 63,000 Facebook followers, 58,000 Twitter followers, 35,000 Arkansas blog followers, and 70,000 email subscribers, it's clear that our readers value our commitment to great journalism. But we need your help to do even more. By subscribing or donating – as little as $1 –, you'll not only have access to all of our articles, but you'll also be supporting our efforts to hire more writers and expand our coverage. Take a stand with the Arkansas Times and make a difference with your subscription or donation today.

Previous article NLR High School to continue remote learning tomorrow as bat problem continues Next article Solar industry group, sponsors of bill to end existing solar policy reach compromise