LEARNS bill builds resentment: Arleg week 7

By February 25, 2023No Comments

Our week 7 legislative video recap is up, in which Gennie is utterly consumed by the LEARNS bill and forgets what day it is. Thankfully, Hannah paid attention to everything else. (yes, other things happened!) Watch or read on for the highlights.

Let’s be honest: the LEARNS Act dominated this week’s political news cycle, and for good reason. We spent most of our time covering the bill’s rollout, but here’s a quick glance at other noteworthy businesses from the week:

  • Anti-woke bank bill pulled for amendments
  • Bill banning non-existent absentee drop boxes passes Senate
  • Library book ban bill advances to House
  • Strict liability for trans youth healthcare bill passes Senate
  • Bill to support pregnant and parenting students passes legislature, heads to Governor’s desk

Lets get to LEARNS

Y’all there is just so much to talk about regarding LEARNS, which is why our youtube recap is twice as long as it typically is. 😬 There is no way to cover everything in one update, so we’re going to talk through three big themes of the bill’s legislative introduction.

1. The bill’s process

At 4:55 pm on Monday, just 40 hours before the bill would run in committee, the 144 pages dropped. Everyone concerned about the bill’s policy details, especially teachers and members of the legislature, busted out their highlighters and got to work. We immediately shared three big surprises that stuck out to us during our first comb through.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Breanne Davis introduced her bill to Senate Education. She was flooded with questions from committee, including members of her own party. Sen. Kim Hammer (R) meticulously probed Davis on the bill, page by page. It was easy to see that Senate Committee members did not have time to vet the unprecedented 144 pages of language.

Sen. Chesterfield asserted that members, especially Democrats, had been left out of the bill’s “process.” Typically, members take a collaborative approach to bill drafting. Even when a majority party’s policy is guaranteed passage, it is custom to share the bill with and solicit feedback from members ahead of the bill’s committee debut.

This did not happen with LEARNS. According to some Senate members, several of whom are Republicans, input was not requested before the bill’s filing. Legislators spoke to the affront with anger and frustration; many shared disappointment that the bill was rushed. Frustrated herself with the accusation of exclusivity, Davis jumped at every opportunity to say the process was “collaborative” and “not a secret” — an interesting defense when the bombshell bill surprised so many of her colleagues.

2. The bill’s big deal

Each of the bill’s problems deserve proper critique from the public and lawmakers. We can’t cover all of these though. Our number one hangup with LEARNS is vouchers.

The meat of LEARNS is vouchers (“school choice,” as proponents say) wrapped up in other education policy. Vouchers are the stinky rotten core of a legislative onion that seems okay from the outside. But peel back the layers and LEARNS is increasingly unappetizing — poisonous, even.

We have plenty of resources on vouchers already on the site, but once LEARNS went public, we heard the truth about vouchers from lawmakers themselves. Despite being called “universal,” vouchers are not guaranteed for any Arkansas student. The talk about kids not being trapped because of their zip code is simply propaganda. Here is the voucher truth:

  • Private schools don’t have to accept kids who apply with vouchers.
  • Kids can be kicked out of the voucher program for low academic performance — or for any other reason a private school gives.
  • The amount of money for universal vouchers will be capped, so the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have. That’s great, but there’s a catch:
    • It’s not universal. It’s first come, first serve.
    • As we said before, even if there is voucher money for every student, private schools don’t have to accept them.
    • So who gets vouchers if private schools can pick and choose? Say it with us: KIDS. ALREADY. IN. PRIVATE. SCHOOL.

This is the big deal. If the state doesn’t have the cash to send every private-school aspiring student to their dream campus, vouchers are not actually universal. If the state does have plenty of dollars to send a student to a private school of their choice, but the school doesn’t have a spot (or feels cranky and doesn’t want them for any other reason), taxpayer-funded vouchers go directly to families who can already afford private school. This, our friends, is why vouchers are a scam. Under this program, many students will be left behind.

3. The bill’s unpopular impact & the sponsor’s unbecoming vengeance

Opposition to LEARNS is considerable. Wednesday’s committee lasted five hours; two-thirds of that time went to public testimony, which was largely from educators opposed to vouchers, the elimination of the teacher salary schedule, merit based pay, and more.

Cohorts of teachers from towns like Star City and Two Rivers spoke their truth to power. They argued that though raises would benefit them, they could not support a bill that does not benefit their students. The bill, they said, endangers their schools. It was a lovely sight to see educators from across Arkansas engage lawmakers directly, especially after the bill’s top secret, six week incubation period.

But the bill’s sponsor did not find these educators endearing. She took to social media to retaliate against these teachers because these teachers were so effective in communicating the harm of LEARNS. In a truly remarkable series of social media posts, Senator Breanne Davis sneered at educators and threatened those who gave testimony in committee. Davis tweeted a page from Star City school district’s employee manual and wrote:

“Nice to have the Star City School District teachers & admin with us today to witness successful passage of #SB294. That does not excuse the fact that the superintendent allowed for blatant violation of its policy. @ArkEducation must investigate & hold leadership accountable.”

Alarmingly, Senator Davis used her position as an elected leader to threaten rural educators because they had the guts to oppose her policy. Read that sentence again and ponder the grotesque abuse of power Senator Breanne Davis displayed this week.

The playground pettiness didn’t end there. Davis got mad at For AR People and On AR Watch for reporting that she called administrators and superintendents liars, something she said on public record. The Sanders administration also deployed staffers to try and undercut the public flogging of LEARNS. Spoiler: the Tonya-Harding move from staffers was not well received. Flak for LEARNS was so bad that ABC national news joined the chat. Let’s just say the governor’s hit(wo)men didn’t like that either.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding blatant bullying and abuse of power from state officials. There’s more to come on this front.

The bill’s next step

There is much more drama to come now that LEARNS heads to the House. There is still time to contact lawmakers in that chamber, starting with education committee members (list below). You can also join us and our education coalition partners Tuesday 2/28 at 8am ahead of the bill’s House committee introduction. We suspect educators will again do what their gut tells them and show up in droves to oppose this bill. Stay tuned.

Keith Brooks[email protected]501-744-6080
Sonia Barker[email protected]870-814-7605
Rick Beck[email protected]501-912-1441
Bruce Cozart[email protected]501-627-3232
Hope Hendren Duke[email protected]479-787-5628
Charlene Fite[email protected]479-414-1818
Lanny Fite[email protected]501-317-2400
Vivian Flowers[email protected]870-329-8356
Denise Garner[email protected]479-283-5050
Grant Hodges[email protected]479-381-9091
Wayne Long[email protected]501-290-0091
John Maddox[email protected]479-394-6060
Brit McKenzie[email protected]479-644-9001
Ron McNair[email protected]870-754-7962
Stephen Meeks[email protected]501-314-9250
Stetson Painter[email protected]501-733-3203
DeAnn Vaught[email protected]870-832-2638
Steven Walker[email protected]870-291-0559
Carlton Wing[email protected]501-944-9464