Arkansas education overhaul on fast track

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) will get an early win, just weeks into her first term.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers reporters’ questions at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

The Arkansas Senate is likely to finalize a package of sweeping overhauls to the state’s K-12 education system that formed the cornerstone of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s (R) campaign for office in the coming days, handing a new governor a major win just weeks into her first term.

The bill, dubbed the LEARNS Act, passed the state House on a nearly party-line vote Thursday. It will head back to the Senate, which already approved an earlier version, where lawmakers expect a final vote by Tuesday.

“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,” Sanders said in a recent statement. “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.”

The bill:

  • Raises starting teacher salaries to $50,000 a year and provides $2,000 raises for those already making the state minimum. The average starting teacher in Arkansas makes just $36,000 a year today.
  • Establishes a Merit Teacher Incentive Fund would get $10 million a year, allowing for up to $10,000 bonuses for effective teachers.
  • Creates Educational Freedom Accounts. The state would provide $7,000 the first year and $14,000 the second to pay for tuition to a non-public school. 
  • Provides up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. School districts must opt in, and the state would cover half the cost.
  • Provides $20 million a year for a High Impact Tutoring program and $6.2 million for 120 literacy coaches around the state.
  • Provides $12 million a year for the Teacher Academy Scholarship Fund to recruit teachers and cover educational costs, and $1.1 million a year for the State Teacher Education Program, which covers loan repayment for federal student loans up to $6,000 a year for three years.
  • Provides $8.5 million a year for the Supplemental Education Service program. Under the program, third graders and those younger  not reading at grade level would be eligible for $500 stipends for supplemental education services.
  • Creates a new reading requirement for third graders, who would be held back if they do not reach reading thresholds.
  • Adds a 75-hour community service requirement for high school graduation.
  • Bans the teaching of critical race theory.
  • Implements a career-ready pathway to a high school diploma not geared toward college.
  • Repeals the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act, a law that makes it more difficult to fire teachers.

The bill had appeared on track to pass this week. But a late amendment from Rep. Keith Brooks (R), the measure’s prime sponsor in the House, made a series of technical corrections that the Senate must approve once again.

Arkansas currently has among the lowest starting teacher salaries in the nation. Currently, 39% of school districts in Arkansas have a starting teacher salary of $36,000, the state minimum. Over half, 61% of those districts, max out their top salary schedule for teachers with a bachelor’s degree under $50,000, and 10% of districts in the state have no teachers making over $50,000.

According to state budgeteers, the bill would cost $297.5 million in the first year, including $150 million in new money. That would rise to $343.3 million in the second year and include $250 million in additional appropriations.

Most funds, $180 million annually, would go towards raising salaries. Education Freedom Accounts would cost the state about $46.7 million in the first year and about twice that in the second year.

The accounts, to subsidize tuition fees at private or parochial schools, would be funded at up to 90% of the state’s annual per-student funding, estimated to be $7,000 per student in year one and $14,000 in year two.

The measure also includes a provision providing up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to all full-time school district employees. The provision is expected to cost $3 million annually and requires each school district to pay half. Maternity leave is not mandatory and districts must opt-in to take advantage of the cost-sharing with the state.

Sanders will become the latest Republican governor to put her stamp on her state’s K-12 system after the party embraced education reforms in the wake of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s winning campaign in 2021.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a school-choice bill just over two weeks after proposing it, after three years of work. Earlier this week, the Ohio Senate approved a bill that would give the governor control over K-12 education and install two new deputies of education, one for K-12 and one for career technical education.