(The Center Square) – The Arkansas Senate Education Committee gave a do-pass recommendation Wednesday to the Arkansas LEARNS bill, but not without some reservations from both Democrats and Republicans.
ARKANSAS LEARNS raises starting teacher salary to $50,000 a year but does away with the teacher salary schedule, a move that some said could mean veteran teachers would make just a few thousand dollars more than new teachers.
The bill also creates “Educational Freedom Accounts” that would give parents “universal choice” as to where they want to send their children to school. The accounts would be available to all parents by the 2025-2026 school year, according to the bill.
If passed in its current form, the bill would do away with the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which Sen. Kim Hammer R-Benton, said he wanted to see the House of Representatives address with an amendment.
“I want to see the subject of sex-ed typed up. I want technical corrections made,” Hammer said. “On the fiscal analysis, I want the retirement system to present documentation as to the financial impact it’s going to have on the system, given the fact that we’re about to do the raises. I think that is critical so that we don’t set the retirement system up for potential catastrophe in the future.”
A fiscal impact statement released Wednesday by the Arkansas Department of Education shows the bill would cost $298 million in the first year, with $150 million being new money. The increase in teachers’ salaries would make up $180 million of the cost each year.
The department estimates about 7,000 students would take advantage of the Education Freedom Accounts in the first year, and 14,000 would participate in the second year. The cost estimate is nearly $48 million in year one and $97.5 million in year two, according to the fiscal impact statement.
The vote came after more than five hours of discussion among the committee and comments from the public.
The teacher pay raises were lauded, but some expressed concerns about other bill provisions. Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Educational Association, said the bill includes programs her association likes, but many details were lacking.
“We have public schools in every community across the state and our energy should be focused on making every one of those schools great,” Fleming said. “Instead of putting all our energy and resources into the classroom and school environment, this bill puts the onus of a quality education on parents and they shouldn’t have to think twice about the education their children are receiving.”
Some members of the public said more time was needed to consider the bill. The 144-page bill was filed Monday afternoon.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, a retired educator, said she liked many things about the bill. She also praised Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva for meeting with her.
“But when I got to the Senate, the body of which I am a part, I was taken aback by the lack of inclusion of Democratic members of this body,” Chesterfield said. “In fact, we were treated profoundly discriminatory in that members that were not even people on this committee received advanced copies of this bill on Friday, and we received ours Monday afternoon.”
The bill now moves to the full Senate for approval.