Arkansas LEARNS sets a dangerous course for public schools

Despite calls for amendments from both sides of the aisle and considerable opposition from public school supporters, Gov. Sanders’ Arkansas LEARNS bill passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and the full Senate on Thursday.

As an education policy researcher and advocate for equitable public education here in Arkansas, I have concerns about this 144-page education omnibus.

First, although the starting salary for educators is being raised to an applaudable $50,000, it does not appropriately address the average teacher salary. Instead, I am concerned that it makes the floor, the ceiling. Additionally, repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act will be incredibly harmful to the educator workforce by effectively silencing them. Our efforts should be focused on recruitment and retention, and this bill seems to only focus on the former not the latter.

Second, if we are going to shift early learning to be encapsulated by the Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board of Education (a move I am not necessarily opposed to), we need to require that at least two State Board of Education members be experts in early childhood education. Three-year-olds are not third graders, and their developmental needs and differences need to be represented on the State Board of Education.

Lastly, we have decades of research on the impact of school vouchers on students and on neighborhood schools that have shown us that vouchers do not improve educational outcomes for students who receive them, especially for students of color, English Language Learners, and special education students. At the same time, they worsen outcomes for students remaining in public schools by decreasing valuable resources available to them.

This legislation will undoubtedly drain resources from our public schools over time. And it will hurt our rural school districts.

It will become even more problematic given that, unlike public schools, private schools will still have inadequate transparency about how effectively or fairly they are educating our children. This, in turn, will reduce the ability of policymakers and taxpayers to hold them accountable for how our tax dollars are being used.

Arkansas LEARNS will effectively create a tiered system of education for Arkansans, with those who have access to private schools on one side; and those who either cannot afford it even with the education freedom account funds, who have children with disabilities, or who live in rural areas where private schools are not an option on the other side.

Parents will always have the right to send their child to private school, but the state should not be covering the cost. The vast majority of children in this state (over 90%) attend public schools, and Arkansas taxpayer dollars for education should be invested in public schools exclusively so that every child in every Arkansas community has the opportunity for a world class education.