Gennie Diaz

The most telling line from February’s whirlwind hearings on the massive school privatization bill zooming through the Arkansas Capitol was a throw-away one, an aside by Rep. Brit McKenzie (R-Rogers) that laid the whole ruse bare.

Searcy science teacher Trevor McGarrah had worn his snazziest red suspenders to deliver tearful testimony about the tyranny of standardized tests and the cruelty of using them to determine the fates of children, schools and entire communities. When test scores reflect a community’s poverty level but little else, using those scores to label schools as failures and to give up on them feels just mean.


“I appreciate your passion,” McKenzie told McGarrah. “I don’t think anyone on this committee would doubt your passion and your love for your students. But you’re in a room with 20 people who are going to decide the future of education.”

It’s the truth. Those 20 members of the House Education Committee would vote the next day on Arkansas LEARNS, the public school takeover and privatization bill that erases the teacher pay scale, funnels public money to private schools and forces struggling public schools to hand over the keys to unaccountable privately run charters. 


Now signed into law, the LEARNS Act will cost the state hundreds of millions in new spending. Little of that will go to strategies and interventions proven to boost student learning. LEARNS doesn’t expand pre-K or early childhood education. There’s nothing in it to encourage or pay for after-school or summer programs. But those programs mainly benefit poor kids, while LEARNS is crafted for a different audience.

Included instead is a massive entitlement program that repurposes tax dollars as vouchers for private, parochial and home schools. Similar programs in other states have shaped up to be welfare for the rich, since the vast majority of families claiming vouchers were sending their kids to private schools already. With vouchers, though, they can do it on the taxpayers’ dime.


The “school choice” agenda does have proven results in one area. Resegregation is virtually a done deal, as private and charter schools will ramp up advertising campaigns to attract new students and the taxpayer dollars they’ll bring. Families with the transportation, time and know-how to navigate the system are apt to try on these shiny new options, leaving families with greater needs and fewer resources behind in increasingly neglected traditional public schools. Large-scale voucher and school choice programs in other countries (Chile, the Netherlands, Sweden) and within the United States (Indiana, Arizona) churn out the same now-predictable results: white flight and wealthy flight from public schools.

D.C.-style omnibus bills like LEARNS are a rarity in Arkansas, where we usually pass laws a handful of pages at a time. But the 144-page behemoth zipped through the entire process in just over two weeks, faster than most bills a fraction of the size. 

Downplayed as an “education overhaul,” this multi-pronged attack on Arkansas public schools is more of an “onslaught” or an “offensive.” An overhaul of this sort on a car engine would mean sending it to a junkyard to rust. Instead, we’re all co-signing on a car payment we may or may not be able to afford, for a stylish but unreliable new ride that doesn’t have nearly enough seats.

Who are the 20 people McKenzie referenced who would be deciding the future of education in Arkansas? Not educators, for the most part. Only three members of the House committee — former high school teacher Sonia Barker (R-Smackover), digital learning coordinator Steven Walker (R-Horseshoe Bend) and former school counselor Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren) — brought schoolhouse experience to the debate.


They might not all be educators, but all 20 members of the House Education Committee had at least a sneaking suspicion that day that Arkansas LEARNS is not a bill designed to help students who need help the most. The parade of teachers who showed up to testify against a bill that would give them significant raises at the expense of their students surely at least planted the seed.

Another hint that not all was on the up and up: Robert Brech, the Department of Finance and Administration budget director, who assured House members the budget numbers work (and maybe he’ll show them how later), was once the lead attorney for the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, the Walton-funded nonprofit that promotes charter schools. Brech didn’t mention that as he defended the financial feasibility of throwing hundreds of millions of dollars in new public spending at privatized “school choice.”

Jessica Saum, the Arkansas 2022 teacher of the year, was one of the few public educators testifying in favor of the bill. She sang the praises of pre-K and lauded the bill for what she said was an emphasis on delivering services to the youngest learners. Yikes!

“I’m excited to hear you say how interested you are and that the governor is also interested in early childhood, that’s my passion,” said Rep. Denise Garner of Fayetteville, a Democrat. “Does this bill in any way add funding or classrooms to early childhood?” Garner asked her.

“I can’t speak to that directly. I’ve looked through the bill, it’s a lot of pages,” Saum answered. If Saum has finished reading it by now, she’ll know that Arkansas LEARNS designates not a single new cent for early childhood education.

Legislators on both sides of the Capitol, and from both parties, criticized the extraordinary speed and acute political pressure pushing Arkansas LEARNS through. While Democrats stood firm against privatizing public education, nearly all Republicans bent the knee. Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio), a cheerleader for rural public schools and established opponent of vouchers, cried as she voted for the very thing she’d long fought. Of the 111 Republican lawmakers at the Arkansas Capitol, only six voted against Arkansas LEARNS. Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe), former football coach and dogged champ for public school students, is among the six who disobeyed Sanders’ marching orders. Half of his Republican colleagues want to get on the governor’s good side, Wooten famously told KARK-TV, Channel 4, and the other half are scared of her.

That fear and/or self-interest will pay off nicely for the state’s most comfortable. Within three years, middle-class taxpayers’ money will flow to upper-middle-class families to subsidize the private educations those well-to-do parents are paying for without our help already. And elite private school educations will remain off limits for everyone else. A $7,000 voucher doesn’t cover the almost $10,000 tuition at the school the governor sends her own children to, not to mention the transportation and food costs not included therein. 

The public school advocates who trekked to the Capitol and invested full days waiting for their five minutes to testify likely won’t see dividends for a good while. But as Harmony Grove Superintendent Heath Bennett and Little Rock School District Board member and advocate Ali Noland prophesied, these lawmakers will own their votes. They will wear them around their necks and can never take them off, even when rural lifeblood schools close their doors and regular people start getting resentful about paying private school tuition for fancy folks.

Steamrolling a universal school voucher plan into law solidifies Sanders’ status as a rightwing darling. It may even heft her up to the next rung on her political ascent, undoubtedly beyond Arkansas state lines.

But when charter schools continue to deliver socioeconomic segregation with no improvements on test scores, and when kids needing a pre-K spot are still not able to find one because this bill sends hundreds of millions of dollars to private, church and home schools but zero dollars to early childhood expansion, the people who camped out for 12 hours will remember why. The rest of us should make a note of it, too.