Senate passes “Arkansas LEARNS” school choice legislation

Senate passes “Arkansas LEARNS” school choice legislation

On Thursday, the Republican-held Arkansas Senate passed the “Arkansas LEARNS” school choice legislation with a majority vote. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to it as a “bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package” that aims to provide parents with the power to choose the best school for their children, improve childhood literacy, increase teacher pay, and prepare students for high-paying jobs.

The legislation’s goal is to adopt universal choice by the 2025-2026 school year. Additionally, it seeks to raise minimum teacher salaries to $50,000 per year and allows school districts the flexibility to create salary schedules that best fit their needs.

The legislation also broadens school choice by providing vouchers through “Education Freedom Accounts,” equaling 90% of funding allocated per student to each public school district in the previous year. Some eligible groups of students, including those with disabilities, homeless, active-duty military parents, and those who attended an F-rated school in the previous year, will receive the voucher for the 2023-2024 school year.

Moreover, the bill aims to eliminate critical race theory from classrooms, fund 120 new literacy coaches for students, and increase the base salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000. The legislation bans instruction on topics such as sxually explicit materials, sxual reproduction, sxual intercourse, gender identity, and sxual orientation in classrooms before fifth grade. Additionally, students are required to complete 75 community service hours to receive their diplomas.

Governor Huckabee Sanders signed the omnibus education reform bill into law on Wednesday, highlighting a boy with special needs who was bullied at the public school he attended and was able to transfer to a school that better fit his needs. However, disability rights advocates opposed the bill, concerned that private and religious schools do not have the same legal requirements to accommodate students with disabilities.

The bill’s sponsor, District 25 Sen. Breanne Davis (R), clarified that the amendments clarified salary schedules for teachers and school districts, as well as a teacher’s right to have a termination appeal hearing before their local school board. District 16 Sen. Kim Hammer (R) expressed concern about senior teachers being overlooked in the proposed changes, to which Davis responded by stating that school districts know the best way to ensure their teachers feel valued is through their salary schedule.

The Arkansas House is expected to take up the legislation next week. Governor Huckabee Sanders thanked the Arkansas Senate for passing the legislation with resounding support and urged the House to pass the bill, transforming Arkansas education and serving as a blueprint for educational success across the nation.

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