It was opening day for the LEARNS Act, which had its first legislative hearing in Senate Education. Opponents had ample time to speak against the bill, which proved irksome for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Breanne Davis. After hours of committee discussion and public testimony, sans a recess mid-day for Senate floor session, the bill ultimately passed on a voice vote.

The Committee began an hour early and moved to a bigger room in order to accommodate the large number of people in attendance. By the committee’s start, there were over 5 pages worth of sign-ups for public testimony.

Debate among committee members dominated the first two hours of the morning. You’ve likely heard the bill is 144 pages long and lumps together multiple education policies like teacher salaries, voucher expansion, maternity leave, literacy directives, community service, indoctrination prohibitions, and more. It was clear from the get-go that members had scores of questions queued up; one member, Sen. Kim Hammer, literally went page by page through the bill, asking for clarification on some its smallest sections. “Small details are what get you sued,” he said to Davis.

Davis did her best to address the questions and concerns of her colleagues, yet at times seemed to lose her cool. Her introduction to the bill was impassioned and well- rehearsed, but she also demonstrated fiery indignation toward LEARNS opponents. Specifically, Davis accused LEARNS challengers of spreading misinformation and “flooding the state with lies” about the bill.

Throughout the Q+A with committee members, Davis repeatedly reverted back to her displeasure with LEARNS dissenters. She spoke plainly about her frustration with public school administrators and superintendents. Administrators, she said, have intentionally misled the public, their teachers and their communities regarding LEARNS. In her closing arguments for the bill, Davis’ condescension soared to new heights. She ended by stating that those in opposition to the bill are “enemies of change.” Wowzers.

Sen. Chesterfield liked some aspects of the bill but ultimately voted “no”

Luckily Davis had a sidekick, Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, who at times offered a tempered tone that balanced out Davis’. But Oliva nonetheless parroted the governor’s LEARNS marketing jingle: bold, transformative reform for Arkansas students.

The main theme of Oliva’s answers to committee members was local control. Returning local control to districts and school boards served as the reason behind the policy proposals to which Oliva spoke. For example, Oliva believes removing the state’s teacher pay salary schedule is about letting school districts decide what’s best; allowing charters to take over failing public schools is to sidestep state takeover; not defining CRT, despite it being banned in LEARNS, reinforces that districts know curriculum standards best. However by the end of the day, Oliva’s sensibility seemed to fade. Both he and Davis looked as though they wanted to get the whole thing over with.

There were bright spots, though. Teacher testimonies from the Two Rivers school system, a small yet mighty district in Yell County, were fantastic. Devin Tubbs, science teacher at Two Rivers, galvanized the crowd with his impassioned speech about how vouchers will not fix poverty. Another opponent of the bill was Dr. Steve Mckee, pediatrician and concerned parent, who is worried about using $300 million in public funds for private school tuition instead of investing the money in our neediest public schools.

It appeared as though the public’s opposition testimony outweighed that of LEARNS fans by roughly 3-1. Audience members were steadfast in their message: vouchers are dangerous. “In my opinion, the state has no business funding private schools,” said one man in opposition to the LEARNS Act.

The bill finally passed this afternoon around 4:30pm. Committee members looked tired and beleaguered. Sen. Kim Hammer, who asked tough questions through the bill’s hearing, stated he would vote for the bill despite serious concerns that the bill needs amending before it can pass the House. Democratic Senators Linda Chesterfield and Greg Leding said they would vote no. After a motion from Senator Davis, the LEARNS Act passed the Education Committee on a voice vote. It will move to the Senate floor tomorrow morning.