LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her landmark education reform legislation into law Wednesday. Arkansas LEARNS will make a number of structural changes to Arkansas’ education system.
The 144-page bill brings a $50,000 minimum starting teacher salary and at least $2000 raises for veteran teachers and staff. It invests considerable money in mental health resources and early childhood development programs. It also implements school choice through Education Freedom Accounts, which will be phased in over a three-year period.
“When parents are empowered to choose, all schools work harder to attract students,” Sanders said. “Competition breeds excellence.”
Students from Calvary Academy in North Little Rock got to stand behind Sanders as she signed the bill. Fourth-grade teacher Samantha Bishop said they’d planned a field trip weeks before and just happened to find out the bill signing was happening.
“When we got here, we found out they were going to sign this legislation into law, and we got to be apart,” Bishop said. “This is a monumental occasion for them. This is historical.”
The signing came a month after Sanders first introduced her plan. Democratic lawmakers expressed support for some parts of the bill, but school choice and the removal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act were parts that tanked their support.
State Sen. Greg Leding introduced his own education legislation earlier in the session and said that would have been a better option.
“Make no mistake about it, we supported about 70% of this bill but couldn’t get behind school vouchers,” Leding said. “I hope in the rulemaking process we can have bipartisan discussions and work together.”
Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said this bill will be a boost for private and public-school families, as well as homeschool, parochial and charter school families.
“If the local school district’s not able to meet all the students’ family’s needs, then it also provides additional pathways and options,” Oliva said.
Some in the legal community said this legislation could conflict with the Lakeview decision, which dictates that Arkansas must provide equitable and adequate education for all students. Since Arkansas LEARNS makes some requirements for public schools not required for private ones, they worry some elements could be deemed unconstitutional.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I’m sure there will be some challenges in court,” Leding said.
Sanders said this will help change education in Arkansas for the better.
“What a great day it is in Arkansas,” Sanders said.