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Gov. Sanders' LEARNS Act worries, empowers Arkansans

SB 294, or the LEARNS Act passes the Senate, seeking to enact sweeping changes to the Arkansas education system, from teacher pay to prohibiting subjects.

ARKANSAS, USA — Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called the Arkansas LEARNS Act "the most substantial overhaul of our state's education system in Arkansas history,"  and it has now passed the Senate with a majority vote.

The Governor tweeted just moments after the Senate passed the bill stating that she's prepared to sign the bill into law tomorrow, ending "the failed statues quo."

Many representatives have stated that the expansive bill was pushed through legislation at an unprecedented speed, Democratic Sen. Reginald Murdock said “we've never put this many important topics into one piece of legislation and voted on it with one vote."

The LEARNS Act is sweeping, expansive, and complicated— but the highlights can be narrowed down to teacher pay, vouchers, and the prohibition of certain education topics such as critical race theory, or CRT.

Note: The bill is 144 pages long, click here to read it in full.

Teacher Pay/Benefits:

The bill looks to raise starting teacher salaries from $36,000 a year to $50,000, a move that both Republican and Democratic parties have called for in the past. 

However, LEARNS eliminates state-funded raises based on experience and graduate degrees, which can cause a larger hurdle for lower-income and rural school districts trying to compete with other districts.

The Associated Press reported that Democrats proposed a standalone teacher salary bill, unattached to the LEARNS bill, and also quote Sanders as including student loan forgiveness for new teachers who commit to teaching in high-need areas, as well as up to $10,000 in "performance-based bonuses," the implementation of reading coaches, and $500 tutoring grants.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said about the bill, "I do probably like 60 to 70% of it, but as I’ve told a lot of people if the last 30% of the cheeseburger is poison, it’s still a pretty lousy cheeseburger."

Other provisions in the bill include up to 12 weeks of maternity leave for teachers, with the cost split between the state and districts. 

The sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Breanne Davis says that under LEARNS, school districts will have to declare how much money districts spend on teacher salaries in regard to what the state is sending them.


School vouchers, which are redeemable government funding for students to use at non-public schools, are seen by the Democratic opposition as taking money from an already struggling public education system across the state. Gov. Sanders, who has championed school choice, heavily supports the use of school vouchers.

Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Washington Co.) was quoted as saying that the LEARNS Act would "overwhelmingly benefit well-to-do families. When these types of programs are instituted, they do not increase school choice for poor children. Instead, 75-80% of these funds are used by families whose kids already attend private schools."

Rep. Clowney went on to say that under the bill, "It is true that when a family chooses a private school, their nearly $7,000 in voucher money goes from their local public school into private hands. However ... If the private school kicks the student out, the private school gets to keep the public money."

Democratic Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House minority leader told reporters, “You lump everything into that kind of a bill and even if there are some things we’d like to support or could support, we just can’t do it because we believe the voucher part of it is going to be a systematic dismantling of the public school system in Arkansas.”

The Arkansas Education Association (AEA), refers to LEARNS as an "unvetted voucher bill." 

Democratic Sen. Fredrick J. Love said that after Brown v. Board of Education, vouchers were used during the integration of schools to further segregation.

Critical Race Theory/LGBT+ Prohibition:

Other changes in the bill include a provision banning the teaching, and classroom instruction of the topics of Critical Race Theory, as well as gender identity or sexual orientation in young classrooms. 

The bill claims that Critical Race Theory, known as CRT, is in conflict with the Civil Rights Act of 1964's statement that nobody can be discriminated against based on “color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal state or law.”

The Democratic Party of Arkansas says the part of the bill that speaks against that “indoctrination” is similar to the controversial Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which instructs public school teachers not to teach lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity to young students.

Some say the language within the LEARNS Act is overly vague, with "age-appropriate," and "developmentally appropriate," being pointed at as terminology that could be interpreted differently by different groups. Critics say that this could lead to teachers avoiding the subjects for all grade levels, depriving students of vital information.

The fight against CRT in Arkansas schools didn’t start with LEARNS, however. Sen. Tom Cotton filed a bill in 2021 to cut federal funding from public schools that taught the idea that racism is systemic in American systems. Cotton compared the alleged teaching of the ideals to “state-sanctioned racism.”


Democrats urged more time to take up the legislation and asked that the increase in starting teacher pay and other issues be considered separately.

“I asked for more time because I can sit here and I have multiple, multiple issues where an amendment needs to be made," said Sen. Jimmy Hickey, the only Senate Republican to vote against the bill. “Most all of them are not going to be controversial."

On Thursday, March 2, the House passed LEARNS, and on March 7, it was passed by the Arkansas Senate.

Arkansas Education Association President Carol B. Fleming responded to the act passing the House, stating that "The voices of hundreds of educators, parents, disability advocates, and others have been ignored by those who represent us. Despite pleas to our legislators to slow down and answer questions about the negative impact this bill could have on our children, it continues its sprint through the capital."

Fleming said for many, after reading the full 144-page bill, more questions arose than answers. "At every turn, our requests to meet with the governor or the bill’s authors have been ignored or deflected. If supporters of the bill are so confident about it, why are they trying to push it through so quickly without meaningful discussions? What are they afraid of and what’s in there that they don’t want us to know?”

Sponsor Rep. Sen. Davis said that "The willingness to confront that change will determine how much we will really do for our youth, and how truly meaningful our efforts will be. That test will not be how elaborate we make our proposals for new programs and funds. But how well these programs affect the inadequacies of old how willing we are to change the old. We are called to fight for our kids. We are called to fight for our teachers to support them."

Sen. Davis also stated that "The Department of Ed will now begin to put together working groups made up of educators all over our state to develop the rules to ensure the success of not just this bill, but the success of the current generation moving through our school system."

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