Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ sweeping K-12 education plan passed the Senate Thursday as it continued on a fast trajectory through the legislature despite bipartisan calls to slow down the measure, which includes a phased-in, universal school voucher program.
The Republican governor’s Arkansas LEARNS plan received its first public airing on Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee, which advanced the measure to the full chamber with the understanding amendments addressing several issues would be made in the House.
The plan, which would also boost teacher pay and seek to improve student performance, requires $400 million in new money over two years to help cover its total cost of nearly $300 million in fiscal 2024 and $343.3 million in fiscal 2025.
“This is the largest investment in public schools in Arkansas’ history,” State Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill’s lead sponsor, said ahead of the Senate’s 25-7 Senate vote, noting it was a big part of Sanders’ campaign for governor.
The former Trump administration press secretary and daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee won election in November with more than 63% of the vote and her fellow Republicans dominate the state legislature.
Republican State Sen. Bryan King, who voted present, said while the bill was commendable, he questioned its cost and the haste to pass it.
“The rushing part is a big issue to me,” he said.
Sanders called the bill “the biggest, most far-reaching, conservative education reform in America.
“Once Arkansas LEARNS passes, minimum teacher pay will go from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation, parents will be empowered to choose whatever school is best for their family, and our students will finally be back to learning the basics of reading, writing, science, math, and history and put on a pathway to success,” she said in a statement when the bill was introduced on Monday.
The legislation creates “education freedom” accounts, which would make 90% of the prior year’s statewide foundation funding per student available initially for tuition and fees at accredited private schools and eventually for home-schooled children. The bill limits the accounts to 1.5% of total public school enrollment in the first year and 3% in the second year with priority given to certain groups of children and parents.
The vouchers would cost a projected $46.7 million based on an anticipated 7,000 accounts in the first year and $97.5 million based on 14,000 accounts in the second year. In the 2025-26 school year when the accounts would be universally available, the cost is projected at $175 million, according to Robert Brech, the state’s fiscal and budget administrator.
Public testimony on the bill Wednesday came from both proponents and opponents, with many of the latter raising concerns over the educational and financial accountability of vouchers and fears of draining resources from public school districts.
Barry Jefferson, president of the Jacksonville, Arkansas, branch of the NAACP, said his organization agrees with a lot of the items in the bill, but not vouchers.
“When you start taking funding away from (public) schools, I have an issue with it,” he said. “Voucher programs do not work. Research proves it.”
Davis said nothing in the bill defunds public schools.
“We are committed to public schools,” she said. “We want them to thrive.”
Arkansas is one of several states embracing new or expanded voucher programs this year.
The Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act passed the state’s Republican-controlled House Wednesday in a 75-25 vote. The bill would grant up to $5,000 in tax credits per student annually for qualified private school expenses and up to $2,500 for other alternatives to public education.
In Arizona, which enacted the nation’s most expansive voucher program last year, new Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is seeking to repeal it after costs greatly exceed projections.