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When will Arkansas LEARNS be challenged legally?

Dr. Baker says he’s fairly sure the Democratic party will file some kind of lawsuit, but the party may not be the only one.

FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas — Now that the Arkansas LEARNS Act is law, how long will it be before a legal challenge is filed to block it from taking effect?

An Associate Professor at UA Fort Smith says it won't be long at all. 

The bill raises minimum teacher pay to $50,000, allows districts to set their own salary schedule for future raises and allows parents to use vouchers to send their kids to private schools. 

That has Associate Professor Dr. Eric Baker a little concerned. “You're using public money that will go to private schools. And the concern is that you're going to create a two-tiered system, where the wealthy will send their children to private schools and makeup whatever difference between the voucher and the private school tuition is, [and] the poor families won't have that opportunity. So really comes down to equity and equal opportunity sort of question.”

The LEARNS Act sponsor, Russellville State Senator Breanne Davis says she has no problem with the voucher system. “There's case law on this. Like everything is constitutional. There's been cases across the country, like, there was a recent ruling about this very thing. It's completely constitutional, and I have no problem with it.”

Fayetteville State Senator Greg Leding said the voucher system is flat-out wrong. “Private schools are going to select which students they want. And so if you have a student who's struggling in a public school that go to a private school, they continue to struggle, that private school can send them back to public schools. And that just doesn't seem like a fair situation.”

Olivia Gardner is the director of education policy for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. She is concerned about the creation of education freedom accounts. She cited the Lakeview Decision, which she said could be violated by SB 294. The decision was a 15-year process that had involvement from the Arkansas Supreme court. The constitutional decision made the state revamp how it funded schools.

"Any movement with public money flowing away from public schools draws into question for us, whether there'll be enough funding left to make sure that public schools are adequate, and equitable enough to meet that constitutional mandate," said Gardner.

Dr. Baker says it’s very similar to the lawsuit filed in 2002. “I could see the State Supreme Court weighing in on this quite easily.” 

Dr. Baker says he’s fairly sure the Democratic party will file some kind of lawsuit, but the party may not be the only one. “You could see some parents who would take issue on this in terms of an equity issue, equal protection issue, maybe even a civil rights issue.”

Gardner said that the minimum wage of $50,000 set by the LEARNS act would cause issues for veteran educators. She believes it would be great for recruitment but not for retention. 

"It helps us bring folks from out of state and it helps us get folks into other parts of the state that are more into more geographically diverse areas of our state, really incentivizing folks to teach in the Delta or to teach in southwest Arkansas, etc," Gardner said. "However, I am concerned about how little impact we'll have on our veteran educators who have been in the classroom for 10-20 years, who may not be seeing much of a salary increase at all to really honor that time in the classroom."

She further mentioned the concern of educators about the removal of pay schedules. While Senator Breanne Davis, sponsor of the bill, said school districts would have to implement a schedule, Gardner believed it wasn't adequate for veteran teachers.

"There is also a mechanism where teachers could get a $10,000 bonus, but that is tied to a merit increase. And so we know that merit increases are a little bit problematic. I don't know any educator that doesn't walk into the classroom and give it 100%," she said.

With the signing of the bill from the governor, it now moves to the Department of Education, where they'll put together working groups of educators to develop rules.

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