Controversial Arkansas LEARNS Act passed by the Senate


Loren Savage, Writer

On Thursday, February 23 the highly controversial education bill “Arkansas LEARNS” (SB294) was passed in the Arkansas Senate and made its way to the House. The bill has 25 of 35 senate sponsors and 55 of 100 house sponsors, all of whom are republicans. This bill has been long awaited considering that Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders partially ran on education reform and revealed some details of the bill during a press conference several weeks ago. The bill is so controversial many teachers have been protesting their own pay raises because of other stipulations that come with passing the bill.

This bill raises minimum starting teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000, taking Arkansas from 48th place in teacher pay to 4th. The bill also requires that every teacher would receive a $2,000 bonus. State funds are will be offered to help districts meet those changes in pay though where those funds will come from has not been released. Additionally, there are conditions associated with these allocated funds. Each teacher’s contract will be revised at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year requiring them to work at least 190 days, they cannot accept contracts that provide rights that are not given by the state, and districts must use 80% of the states per-student funding for teacher salaries. Though waivers will be given to districts that are unable to meet this requirement without going into extreme financial distress. Districts must be open for in-person, on-site instruction for 178 days of the year. Governor Sanders also wants the bill to repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

The bill will also create a voucher program, named “Arkansas Children Educational Freedom Account Program.” The program will first be available to Arkansas’ most “at risk” families, but will later be available to every student in the 2025-2026 school year. It will give families up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate to use onschool-relatedd expenses. The first students eligible for the program will be homeless students, disabled students, foster children, children of active military personnel, and students at underperforming schools. Sanders wants families to have freedom of choice regarding the school they enroll their students into whether it is “public, private, parochial or homeschool.”

Starting in 2024-2025, 9th graders can earn a high school diploma on a career-ready path. It will focus on studies aligned with high-paying, in-need, high-growth jobs. In 2026-2027 students will then be required to complete 75 hours of community service in order to graduate. This requirement will be waived for students with extenuating circumstances. With this Sanders’ goal is to have graduates better prepared for the workforce.

The bill also outlines prohibitions regarding “indoctrination.” On Sanders’ first day in office, she issued an executive order banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory or other similar ideologies. The bill requires the review of the Department of Education’s policies and materials regarding items that may promote indoctrination. The Education Secretary, Jacob Olivia, may change anything that is deemed to promote these ideologies. Public school employees cannot be required to attend trainings focused on “prohibited indoctrination or Critical Race Theory.” Though, the bill does not prohibit the discussion of public policy issues that some find “unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.” Sanders says, “Of course, this bill will make sure that our students spend their time in the classroom learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. We will never subject our kids to indoctrination and we will never ever expose our young children to inappropriate material.”

This bill also prohibits any teaching on sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexually explicit materials taking place before the fifth grade. Though, discussions surrounding child sexual abuse are allowed. Legal guardians will be notified before this instruction takes place and will have the choice to review the teaching materials and opt their child out.

Many teachers are primarily concerned with the fact that teachers have been left out of conversations surrounding this bill. English 11 and APLAC teacher Katie Stueart says, “Politicians use education as a way to make a name for themselves without consulting those who are best able to solve the problems.” Many teachers are resentful of the fact that this bill appears to be a pawn in legislation’s bigger game.

Like most teachers, English teacher and assistant golf coach, Jami Reed, has concerns about the voucher program. She is fearful of “separate but unequal schools.” While she is hopeful that this program will have little effect on Fayetteville she is concerned that given her experience she “could be making the same amount for the rest of my career.” Reed believes that raising teachers’ base salaries is a good idea, but “not at these expenses.” She says, “surely there is another, better way.”

Both Stueart and Reed say that teachers simply do not have enough time to indoctrinate students, even if they wanted to (which they don’t). Stueart shared a joke saying, “If teachers were indoctrinating students, they would indoctrinate them to bring their supplies and turn in their homework.” Stueart says that her concerns are much more “mundane than pushing a political agenda.” Reed says that teachers simply want to teach students the content surrounding their class. Saying all teachers want is to “prepare [students] to enter civilization as functioning members.”