Sanders’ School Voucher Scheme Gets OK from Arkansas Legislature

LITTLE SKIRT, Ark. – The Arkansas legislature approved on Tuesday an educational overhaul This will create a new school voucher program that will give Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders a key political victory that critics said could jeopardize support for public schools.

The Republican-held Senate voted 26-8 to submit the 145-page bill to Sanders, which also raises minimum salaries for teachers and introduces new restrictions on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill was a top legislative priority for Sanders, the former White House press secretary who took office as governor in January. She said she plans to put the measure into effect on Wednesday.

“I am ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has dominated our education system for far too long,” Sanders said in a statement. “Every child here in Arkansas should have access to a quality education and a path to a well-paying job and a better life.”

Over a three-year period, the plan will phase in an “education freedom account” to cover the cost of private and home tuition equal to 90% of state funding per student for public schools, currently $7,413. It’s part of a renewed push for such voucher programs following the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled in part by syllabus struggles.

Similar savings account programs exist in Arizona and West Virginia, and have been proposed in at least a dozen other states this year.

“We are called to give families the freedom to make the best decisions for their children,” said Republican Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill’s sponsor, before the vote.

Democrats and teachers’ groups opposed to the voucher plan have said it will threaten public schools by diverting resources to private schools that are not required to accept all students. Opponents have also said they are concerned the legislation could create unfunded mandates for districts in the long run.

Democratic Senator Fred Love said he was concerned the program would further segregate public schools.

“I’m pretty sure none of us want to go back there,” Love said ahead of the vote. “But it’s my job as a state senator to sound the alarm when I see something going wrong, and I will say that this bill is leading us in the wrong direction.”

The overhaul would also raise teachers’ minimum wages by 39% to $50,000 a year, after calls by Democrats and Republicans in recent months to raise starting wages from one of the lowest rates in the country.

The bill was largely voted along party lines, with two Republicans joining the six Senate Democrats in opposing the measure. GOP Sen. Bryan King, who voted against, said he was concerned about the long-term costs once coupons are fully implemented. State education officials have estimated the law will cost more than $297 million in its first year and about $343 million the following year.

“I’m just worried, in years three and four, god forbid something bad happens, that you eventually can’t pay for it,” King said after the vote.

Other provisions include a ban on teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation before the 5th grade, similar to a restriction in Florida critics have called Don’t say gay law. Another piece of legislation enacts an executive order signed by Sanders in January that bans the teaching of critical race theory.

Democrats and teachers’ groups have criticized other parts of the bill, including scrapping the state-mandated salary scale for teachers, which sets salary ranges based on education and years of experience. Critics say the move could penalize experienced teachers. The legislation requires school districts to set their own pay plans.

The bill also creates new initiatives aimed at improving the state’s literacy rate by hiring “literacy coaches” to help students.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Sanders’ School Voucher Scheme Gets OK from Arkansas Legislature

Sarah Y. Kim

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