LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A long-awaited education omnibus bill patterned on the Arkansas LEARNS plan from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was filed in the General Assembly Monday.
The 144-page proposal, Senate Bill 294, was sponsored by Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) and filed just before 5 p.m.
The initial plan from Sanders included proposals to expand school choice, raise teacher pay and mandate literacy skills for third-grade students.
In a Feb. 8 news conference where she announced the legislation’s planned submission, Sanders said it contained the most “far-reaching, bold and conservative education reforms anywhere in the entire country.”
The governor said she wanted to be known as “the education governor” during her inauguration speech.
Opponents of the governor’s plan have claimed that the plan could pull funding from many school district already facing money issues and direct them to more financially stable districts, private schools and charter programs.
They also say they are concerned about what will go into determining which teachers get raises as well as the announcement by Sanders that she is looking to repeal the Fair Dismissal Act.
Some smaller elements of the bill include mental health assessment training for school resource officers. Literacy screeners will be provided to schools that need them through the third grade.
Human trafficking awareness training is also included in the bill, and public school teachers will be banned from giving instruction before fifth grade on sexually explicit materials, reproduction, intercourse, sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Secretary of Education is tasked with ensuring there is no “prohibited indoctrination,” specifically related to critical race theory. Teachers’ student loan forgiveness will increase from $3,000 to $6,000.
Nic Horton is the founder of Opportunity Arkansas, a newer organization that promotes a small-government platform. He said polling conducted by the group indicates most Arkansans support the reforms laid out by the governor in her announcement earlier this month.
“What we saw in our polling is a vast majority of Republican voters, Independent voters and even Democratic voters support a lot of these initiatives,” Horton said. “I think it’s an exciting time.”
Horton said the only way to improve Arkansas’ struggling education numbers is to reform the system altogether.
“If we want to make Arkansas a better place to live, work and raise a family, education reform is really the foundation of that,” Horton said.
State Sen. Greg Leding (D) said the timing of the bill’s filing leaves little room to adequately study it and determine how it should be changed.
“Last I heard, the plan is to run this bill in committee Wednesday,” Leding said. “That’s less than 48 hours’ notice for lawmakers and just all the Arkansans who have an interest in this bill. So, we certainly think we need more time.”
Leding said there are elements of the bill Democratic voters support, but the main tenants are pieces they cannot advocate for.
“Our main concern are the vouchers and the repeal of the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act,” Leding said. “Those are two things that as long as those are main components of this bill, I can’t see any way that I’d personally be able to vote for it.”