Jimmy Hickey was among the Republicans who spoke out about the underhanded way the voucher bill is being rushed through the Capitol.

Even objections from Republican voucher supporters over the mach speed at which Arkansas LEARNS is hurtling through the Capitol weren’t enough to slow Gov. Sarah Sanders and company’s bully push for the massive bill they filed only days ago.

The bill passed out of the Senate Thursday with a vote of 25-10.

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Republicans Bryan King, Jimmy Hickey and Alan Clark broke from their party lockstep to cry foul on the secretive and unorthodox way sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) rammed the bill from filing to a Senate floor vote in under three days.

They were joined by Democrats who said they were excluded and belittled in the bill-writing process, and are now being steamrolled before they and their constituents even have adequate time to read the whole thing.

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“We need to go through this the right way,” Clark said, taking issue not only with the speed the bill is moving but also the plan to vote on it before amendments are in place. It’s highly unusual for bills to be passed out of committee when they still need to be amended, as Davis acknowledges her legislation needs to be. Even more unusual is Davis’s pressure to get the full Senate to vote on the bill Thursday and send it over to the House with only her word that amendments are forthcoming.

Repeating arguments she’s made throughout the week, Davis said everyone should have known what would be in the bill before she filed it because the governor campaigned on education reform and they’ve been talking about this for months.

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Even her Republican colleagues aren’t buying it, though.

Hickey said he’s only on page 40, with 104 pages to go. A few days is nowhere near enough to study the language and try to anticipate unintended consequences, he said. 

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“Reading close is my job. I asked for more time,” Hickey said shortly before casting a No vote.

Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning) voted for the bill despite misgivings about irregular procedure.

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“I wouldn’t do it like this if I was the sponsor,” he said.

Democrats objected not only to the slapdash procedure, but also to the content of the bill, which they say leaves poor kids behind.

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“I want to move poverty to the center of the conversation for just a minute. Arkansas is a high-poverty state. Our school districts are out there fighting poverty as much as anything else,” Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) said.

He pointed to two charter schools run by the same company, with the same curriculum and programs in place at different locations. The affluent Maumelle campus routinely comes through with top grades. But the campus in Scott, where the majority of children are poor, scores low on the state report card. Clearly the system we use to grade our schools is skewed toward the affluent, and this bill does nothing to change that.

Tucker said Arkansas’s education system is already inefficient, with traditional and open enrollment charter schools overlapping efforts. Adding a third lane, with publicly funded private schools, will add to that inefficiency.

Tucker also delicately pushed back on a smear campaign being waged against the teachers who oppose the components of the Arkansas LEARNS bill that will do away with step raises for years of service and graduate degrees, remove Fair Teacher Dismissal protections and eventually divert funding from traditional public schools.

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“These public servants are heroes in my eyes,” he said.

Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) took issue with a piece of the bill that says students who accept vouchers for private school tuition but then perform poorly there can be kicked out of the voucher program. Public schools will of course take those students back.

“I don’t think that’s very fair,” Leding said. This will created a tiered education system that puts some schools at an advantage, he said.

Democrats Sen. Reginald Murdock of Marianna said Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock also hammered away at the injustice of having information withheld from them while Republican senators already had access to the king-size bill and could discuss it with their constituents.

“You say everything has gone by the normal legislative process. I disagree, and I think many will,” Murdock said. “We have never taking a bill with so many topics and voted in one vote.”

Questions are still pouring in from constituents that he can’t answer, as amendments are still being written. “That’s not normal, Sen. Davis. That’s not normal,” Murdock said.

Davis declined to slow the process down. She noted that she had the votes to pass the bill out of committee without going through with Wednesday’s all-day hearing, but she held the extended meeting “out of respect for members.”

Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) said he wasn’t worried about the process, and that he and his constituents are excited about getting the Arkansas LEARNS bill signed into law.

Chesterfield recited the serenity prayer about accepting things she cannot change, but noted the irony of the state pay scale no longer awarding raises to teachers who earn advanced degrees. “Only in education does education not matter,” she said.

Sanders’ sent out a triumphant statement after the bill passed the Senate:

“Arkansas is one step closer to unleashing the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation with the Arkansas Senate’s passage of my signature Arkansas LEARNS bill today. It will empower parents to choose the best school for their kid, improve childhood literacy, increase teacher pay to one of the highest in the nation, and prepare kids to graduate into high-paying jobs with the skills and training they need to be successful. Thank you to the Arkansas Senate for passing Arkansas LEARNS with resounding support. Let’s get it passed in the House and signed into law, transforming Arkansas education and serving as a blueprint for educational success across the nation.”

The bill now goes to the House Education Committee, probably on Tuesday.