Little Rock, Arkansas – The Republican governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, received a big policy victory on Tuesday when lawmakers there approved a new school voucher scheme, which critics said may undermine support for public education.
The 145-page law, which also increases the minimum teacher salary and imposes additional limitations on the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, was sent to Sanders by a vote of 26-8 in the Republican-controlled Senate.
For Sanders, the former press secretary for the White House who was elected governor in January, the law was his top legislative goal. She said she is planning to sign the “Arkansas LEARNS” measure into law Wednesday afternoon at the Arkansas State Capitol.
“I’m ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long,” Sanders said in a statement on Tuesday. “Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas.”
The “education freedom account” will gradually be implemented over a three-year period to cover private and home schooling expenses equal to 90% of the state’s existing per-student spending for public schools, which is $7,413. It’s a part of a fresh effort to implement voucher programs of this kind in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been stoked in part by disputes over academic curricula.
Arizona and West Virginia both have similar savings account programs in place, and at least a dozen more states have had similar proposals this year.
“We are called to empower families to have the freedom to make the best decisions for their kids,” Republican Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill’s sponsor, said before the vote.
The voucher scheme is opposed by Sen. Democrats and teachers’ organizations who claim it will endanger public schools by transferring funding to private institutions that are not compelled to take all kids. Additionally, opponents have expressed fear that the law may ultimately impose unfunded demands on districts.
Fred Love, a Democrat, expressed concern that the scheme will further segregate public schools.
“I’m pretty sure none of us want to go back there,” Love said before the vote. “But it is my job as a state senator to ring the alarm when I see something going wrong, and I will say this bill is heading us in the wrong direction.”
Also, as a result of efforts from Democrats and Republicans over the past several months to increase starting pay from one of the lowest rates in the nation, the revision would increase the basic teacher salary by 39% to $50,000 annually.
On a vote that mostly followed party lines, the bill was defeated despite opposition from two Republicans and six Senate Democrats. Sen. Bryan King of the GOP, who abstained, expressed concern over the long-term cost of completely implementing vouchers. According to estimates from state education authorities, the law will cost more than $297 million in its first year and around $343 million the next year.
“I’m just concerned in years three and four, God forbid something bad happens, that eventually, you can’t pay for it,” King said after the vote.
Similar to a Florida limitation known as the “Don’t Say Gay” statute, other clauses forbid classroom education on gender identity and sexual orientation until the fifth grade. Another section of the bill codifies an executive order that Sanders issued in January banning the teaching of critical race theory.
Other provisions of the measure, such as the elimination of the state-mandated payment structure for teachers that establishes pay levels based on education and years of experience, have drawn criticism from Democrats and teachers’ organizations. Opponents claim that the action would penalize veteran teachers. The law mandates that school districts establish their own pay scales.
By employing “literacy coaches” to assist children, the measure also develops new programs targeted at raising the state’s reading rates.
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