Arkansas Governor Signs Wide-Ranging Education Bill Into Law
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Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders officially approved comprehensive changes to improve Arkansas’ education system on Wednesday. The LEARNS Act aims to overhaul the state’s K-12 schools by addressing key areas such as teacher salaries, school safety, career preparedness, literacy, the introduction of a new voucher program, and the prevention of "indoctrination."
Since assuming office in January, the legislation has been Sanders’ primary focus. She emphasized the importance of education during a press conference on Wednesday, stating that it is an investment in the future and the seeds we sow today will be reaped by our children.
Due to the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause, the majority of its provisions have taken immediate effect. Some provisions, like the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, will be implemented later in the year, specifically on June 30.
To implement the various provisions of the LEARNS Act, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva has stated that his department will act with urgency. Oliva will be meeting with superintendents and leaders across the state, starting in Northwest Arkansas on Friday, to discuss the components of the legislation.
One significant change introduced by the new law is the increase in the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000. Additionally, all teachers, including those already earning above the minimum, will receive a $2,000 pay raise next year.
Controversially, the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program has been included in the legislation. This program will allocate state funds, up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate, to families for approved education expenses like private school tuition, tutoring, and homeschooling costs. Although the program will have limited enrollment in the first two years, it will expand to include all families by the third year. Public school administrators and teachers have expressed strong opposition to this initiative.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of Little Rock Central High School students gathered on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the newly signed Arkansas LEARNS bill. The event was led by Bekah Jackson, a senior at Central High, who helped organize the demonstration.
Senate Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock), a former educator, voiced concern about certain provisions of the bill. In particular, she criticized the elimination of a uniform teacher salary schedule and the introduction of a universal voucher program, stating that LEARNS would dismantle and defund public schools. McCullough further argued that the proposed benefits of the legislation would not reach the students who need them the most.
Governor Sanders defended the Educational Freedom Account Program, asserting that it would encourage schools to strive for improvement. Sanders believes that when parents have the power to choose, all schools are compelled to work harder to attract students. She also emphasized that competition leads to excellence.
Last week, the Little Rock Central High School students initiated their protest against the legislation by writing an open letter to Governor Sanders and staging a walkout on Friday afternoon. At the Senate Education Committee meeting on Monday, ten students presented their testimonies. However, they were informed that they could only speak about the amendments and not the bill as a whole.
Junior Addison McCuien expressed her concerns about the provision in the LEARNS Act which mandates the retention of third graders who are unable to read at their grade level. McCuien, who is dyslexic, believes that this provision could negatively affect students like her, hindering their enthusiasm for learning and damaging their self-confidence.
Senior Alisha Majeed expressed her support for public schools, highlighting the value they provide by enabling students to connect with diverse groups of people. Majeed personally experienced a significant cultural difference when she moved from New York City to the majority white school in Searcy, which posed challenges as a person of color.
"Public schools play a crucial role in smaller communities such as mine because they provide an opportunity for people to connect with others who share their similarities," expressed Majeed. "It serves as a space where representation is more diverse and where individuals have greater freedom."
McCuien, along with a fellow student, submitted a letter to the governor’s office prior to the commencement of the protest.
Arkansas Advocate operates as part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus that receive support from grants and a collective group of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains its editorial independence. For any inquiries, please contact Editor Sonny Albarado at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Arkansas Advocate on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
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