As Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law in the state Capitol Building just after noon on Wednesday, Arkansas became the fifth state to enact a universal school choice program for all students.
The law creates educational freedom accounts for all students by 2025 and raises teacher salaries to $50,000 a year. It would also explicitly ban the “indoctrination” of critical race theory and similar ideas in classrooms.
“What a great day it is in Arkansas,” Sanders said. “The biggest, boldest, most conservative education reforms signed into law less than two months into my first term and one month into our first legislative session.”
“More than anything else, education is how we invest in our future,” Sanders said. “It’s the seed we sow today, knowing that only our children will have the opportunity to reap the harvest.”
Arkansas follows four other states that have enacted universal school choice in the last two years.
“We’re seeing a red state school choice revolution unfolding before our eyes,” Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, told Chalkboard Review.
The legislation will also impact educator pay. Every single teacher in the state of Arkansas will get at least $2,000 and puts the state in the top for starting teacher pay, up from 48th, Sanders said.
Carol B. Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, told Chalkboard Review that there is cause for concern given how fast the LEARNS Act was enacted and what accountability measures the law provides.
“The speed at which this legislation moved through the Legislature is unprecedented,” Fleming said, pointing out that the bill made it to the governors’ desk within two and half weeks after it was introduced.
“There are many parts of this bill that we support,” Fleming said. “But there are areas that are lacking, particularly in the systems process for how this bill will be implemented and how all students will have access.”
Fleming said the law would disproportionately affect rural school districts and move money away from public school systems.
“We need to be investing in our schools, not taking money away from our public schools and putting them into private schools,” Fleming said.
Sanders claimed the education savings account program would not defund public schools.
Fleming also mentioned other aspects of the law that would allow ridesharing for students to get to school and questioned whether there would be background checks for drivers of carpools.
“Our concern is that there still needs to be some oversight and accountability from the state department of education regarding the implementation of this bill,” Fleming said.
Arkansas’ move to allow students to use public funds to attend private schools follows a recent trend.
DeAngelis said the wave of recent school choice legislation is indirectly related to teachers unions overplaying their hands during the COVID-19 pandemics. He said school closures had an unintended and indirect effect.
“Families got to see what was going on in the classroom,” DeAngelis said. “The unions didn’t do this on purpose, but parents got to see another dimension of school quality.”
DeAngelis also said the issue has become a GOP litmus test, and that it’s become disastrous for political candidates to oppose parental rights in education, citing the Tennessee GOP primary where voters rejected nine of the 10 candidates backed by the teachers union.
He also pointed to Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania governor’s sudden support of school choice ahead of November's midterm election. Josh Shapiro, who is now governor, changed his position on school choice despite polls showing a comfortable lead over former opponent Doug Mastriano.
DeAngelis said that the motivation for school choice has changed, not because of how students were succeeding or not, but because of what they were being taught.
“Academics is part of it, but families are really mobilized when they feel like they’re sending their kids to an institution that’s brainwashing their kids to hate their families and their values,” DeAngelis said.
In response to a question about the provision that would ban critical race theory, Fleming said educators hold themselves to a high standard and pride themselves on following professional licensing standards.
“Children have to think for themselves. We don’t tell them what to think, but we guide them in their thinking process,” Fleming said. “As educators, we follow the state standards that have been set forth by the state department of education as well as the curriculum that has been adopted by our individual school districts.”
As Chalkboard Review previously reported, the LEARNS Act will prevent public school employees or guest speakers from promoting critical race theory or ideologies “that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone.”
“Red states are banning critical race theory, but the bans are basically unenforceable,” DeAngelis said.
He added that the ideologies targeted by Republican legislation are a symptom of the one-size-fits-all approach to school and that with more education options, public schools would have to make themselves more marketable to parents.
“When parents are allowed to choose, all schools work harder to attract students,” Sanders said in the bill signing ceremony. “Competition breeds excellence.”
"We're tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings," Sanders said. "We know that if we don't plan this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line."