Arkansas Senate committee endorses massive education bill

Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville (left), lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, watches Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, as he discusses the bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22, 2023, in Little Rock. (Video still/State of Arkansas)

An Arkansas Senate panel endorsed on Wednesday a massive education bill that pairs a raise in starting teacher pay with several conservative-backed changes, including a voucher program directing public money to private schools.

The Senate Education Committee advanced the 144-page bill that’s been advocated by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as her top priority this legislative session. The measure heads to the majority-Republican Senate, where 25 of the chamber’s 35 members have signed on as co-sponsors.

“Let’s take this courageous step in the right direction to provide better lives and opportunities for Arkansas’ children,” Republican Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee at the start of a hearing on the bill.

Sanders’ proposal calls for raising starting teacher salaries in the state from $36,000 a year to $50,000. The move follows calls by lawmakers from both parties to raise the starting pay, which is one of the lowest in the country.
The bill includes other measures opposed by Democrats and teachers’ advocacy groups, including an “education freedom account” for private and home schooling that will be phased in over three years. Similar voucher programs exist in Arizona and West Virginia, and they’ve been proposed in a dozen other states this year.

The bill advanced despite Democrats’ calls for the raises to be taken up separately from the vouchers and other parts of the bill.

“I do probably like 60 to 70% of it, but as I’ve told a lot of people, if the last 30% of the cheeseburger is poison, it’s still a pretty lousy cheeseburger,” Democratic Sen. Greg Leding, the Senate’s minority leader, told Davis during the hearing.

The bill also bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity before fifth grade, similar to a law in Florida that critics have dubbed the “ Don’t Say Gay ” law. It also puts into law an executive order Sanders signed last month prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield questioned the bill eliminating the state’s mandated salary schedule, which sets minimum pay ranges for teachers based on their years of experience and education.

“I want to know what you plan on doing to make sure that those who have labored in this field a long period of time are rewarded, and they’re not being paid the same thing as someone who walks in off the street,” Chesterfield said.

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said the legislation will help district recruit teachers and give them more flexibility on pay ranges.

“This allows those school boards and those administrators to build out a salary schedule that best meets the needs of their individual teachers,” Oliva told the panel.

Other parts of the legislation include new initiatives aimed at raising literacy rate, performance bonuses of up to $10,000 for teachers and up to 12 weeks of maternity leave for teachers. The legislation also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which has drawn criticism from teachers’ advocacy groups and Democrats.

A fiscal impact statement prepared by the state Department of Education projected the legislation will cost the state $297.5 million in the first year if enacted and $343 million the following year.

The bill could go before the Senate for a vote as early as Thursday, and it has 55 sponsors in the 100-member majority-Republican House.