Arkansas Senate OKs bill on teacher raises, school vouchers

Arkansas Capitol Building in Little Rock (Paul Brady)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Senate approved an education overhaul Thursday that raises teachers’ starting pay and creates a new voucher program, despite complaints from Democrats and some Republicans about the bill being pushed through the Legislature too quickly.

The proposal, which now heads to the majority-Republican House, is advocated by GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as her top priority this legislative session. Aside from vouchers, the measure includes other changes backed by Republicans but opposed by Democrats and teachers’ groups.

Other changes in the bill include a repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and a provision banning classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation before fifth grade. That restriction is similar to a Florida measure critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Democrats have urged more time to take up the legislation and asked that the increase in starting teacher pay and other issues be considered separately.

“We’ve never taken and put this many important topics into one piece of legislation and voted on it with one vote,” Democratic Sen. Reginald Murdock said.

The proposal calls for raising minimum starting teacher pay from $36,000, one of the lowest in the country, to $50,000. It also creates an “education freedom account” for private and home schooling that will be phased in over three years.

“Arkansas is one step closer to unleashing the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation with the Arkansas Senate’s passage of my signature Arkansas LEARNS bill today,” Sanders said in a statement released by her office after the vote.

The measure easily passed the Senate three days after the 144-page bill was introduced Monday. Several lawmakers said more time was needed to review the legislation.

“I asked for more time because I can sit here and I have multiple, multiple issues where an amendment needs to be made,” said Sen. Jimmy Hickey, the only Senate Republican to vote against the bill. “Most all of them are not going to be controversial.”

The bill passed on a mostly party-line vote, with all of the Senate’s six Democrats and one Republican voting against the measure. Republican Sen. Bryan King, who also expressed concerns about the timeline, voted “present.” Republican Sen. Alan Clark, who expressed similar concerns, did not vote.

Other provisions in the bill include initiatives aimed at improving literacy rates and up to 12 weeks of maternity leave for teachers, with the cost split between the state and districts. The overhaul is estimated to cost the state $297.5 million in the first year if enacted and $343 million the following year.

The bill is expected to go before a House committee next week, and 55 of the House’s 100 members have signed on as co-sponsors.