LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — With the signing of the LEARNS Act bill, many still are concerned for the future of the state's education.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the 144-page omnibus education bill, covering multiple topics, which had advocates concerned.
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.
"I understand she wants to be the education governor, and I certainly welcome the focus and emphasis on education. But as is probably clear, I've had some concerns with the legislation throughout the process," said Gardner. "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."
Before the senate passed the bill on Tuesday, senator Fredrick Love emphasized that a voucher program was previously created after Brown vs Board of Education. He says it segregated schools which Gardner tends to agree could predict future behavior. She voiced her concern to committees saying a tiered system could be created.
"Where we have folks on one side who kind of can afford to make up the difference to still attend private school or who already are attending private school. And then on the other side, folks who still won't be able to afford it, even with the education freedom account funds, folks who live in rural areas, or folks with disabilities, families with disabilities," the Director of Education Policy said.
"Another thank you to Secretary Oliva. You're not just the guy who had to help write this bill. You're also the guy who's gonna get to put it into practice. Your work just got started," Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a press conference.
With the signing of the bill from the governor, it now moves to the Department of Education. They'll put together working groups of educators to develop rules.
"This work isn't over yet. You know, there are still like I said, many ins and outs about the LEARNS acts that will be decided, that is being decided still. And so that will require, you know, our attention and our advocacy. And so groups like mine will be working alongside other advocates in the state to ensure that throughout this process, the best interests of children are not ignored. Because this legislation is not done yet. It's really just beginning," Gardner said.
The director of education policy 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."
Gardner 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.
Other changes in the bill include a provision banning the teaching, and classroom instruction of the topics of Critical Race Theory.
"The Secretary of Education said that this isn't something that we know is happening right now, but rather, this is supposed to be something preventative, in nature. And frankly, that's pretty concerning" Gardner said. "It's very important that our students across the state, understand and know their own history. And anything to limit that is definitely a cause for concern amongst all Arkansans, regardless of race or ethnicity."
SB 294 also prohibits sexual material in classroom teaching before fifth grade. That includes sexual intercourse, reproduction, orientation, and gender identity.
"Arkansas is already a state that doesn't do comprehensive sex education statewide or really talk about a lot of these issues in our public schools. And so, again, this feels like something that we're legislating that doesn't really need to be legislated," said Gardner. "If anything, we should be moving in a direction that really teaches students, you know, how to have agency over their own body, and how to have healthy relationships, and how to understand their own identities."
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