The Weekly Vista
That the Republican majority willingly allowed the Arkansas Senate’s process for evaluating and modifying major legislation to be neutered by a new governor eager to burnish her political bona fides isn’t a shocking development.
The day voters convincingly elected Sarah Huckabee Sanders set the mold. Her Arkansas LEARNS legislation sailed through the Senate within three days of its introduction last week. It doesn’t defund state’s public education system, which some lawmakers referred to as “failed.” But the eagerness of Senate Republicans to swallow every detail of the 144-page bill without applying the heightened level of scrutiny afforded, say, gender identity issues suggests the Senate might have even embraced defunding had Sanders proposed it.
Passage of the bill is, as they say, in the bag.
Sanders calls her proposed changes “the most bold, comprehensive, conservative education reform package in the nation.”
“We’re not messing around in Arkansas,” Sanders’ account on Twitter said last week after the Senate formalized its approval 25-7. All six Senate Democrats voted no. “Every kid will have access to a quality education whether the left likes it or not,” Sanders continued in the tweet.
A small aside: Sanders has 1.3 million followers on Twitter. Arkansas.gov, for those curious, is the official Twitter account of state government and has nearly 46,000 followers. The Arkansas GOP has 14,700 followers. Arkansas Razorback football has 397,000 followers. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has 19,700 followers. Asa Hutchinson, who just left the governor’s office and is eyeing a run for president next year, has 104,000 followers.
So, yes, there may be a reason the governor needed to say “in Arkansas” to help some of her followers with a bit of geography they may not be intimately familiar with.
That Sanders’ governorship is at least as much about building her up nationally as it is serving the people of Arkansas doesn’t necessarily bode poorly for her home state. It just means Arkansans have to put up with everything she does being influenced, at least to a degree, by a need for self-promotion beyond the state’s borders.
And so it’s important that her signature proposal for Year One be seen as a wild success. The Arkansas Senate was happy to oblige.
Only one Republican opposed the education reform bill. Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr. of Texarkana said he’d only had time to sift through 40 pages of the bill by the time it was up for a final vote.
“Even if you agreed with every policy decision that’s within this, you need to hold it up,” Hickey told his colleagues, suggesting a need to do some fine tuning of the bill.
Now, it’s the Arkansas House of Representatives’ turn. The House Education Committee may take up the bill as early as Tuesday. Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, ensured colleagues last week amendments would be made in the House. Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, had suggested changes to shore up some labor protections for educators and a detailed evaluation of the bill’s impact on teacher pensions.
Both sides, including the governor, agreed the bill is an enormous shift for public education in Arkansas. But so far, the issue of drag queen performances in the state has gotten more analysis than Sanders’ education reforms.
What about the specifics of the bill, though?
It’s focus on literacy by the third-grade year is a strong component, though it will be interesting to see how the eventual ban on promoting third-graders who haven’t achieved the state’s desired reading level is welcomed by parents.
Giving administrators a less-complicated way to deal with teachers who aren’t getting the job done, by repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, won’t mean it’s a free-for-all for firing teachers.
Establishing a state- and district-funded program for tutoring for students in need, via a collection of vetted providers, could provide critical access to parents at wit’s end for how to set their student on the right path for a course or courses.
Increasing the base pay of teachers to $50,000 will help draw new teachers to the profession.
Providing literacy coaches for every kindergarten through third-grade teacher in a D- or F-graded school is a component that
could lift students struggling to read and grasp what they read, setting them on a stronger footing for the remainder of their school years and into their adult lives.
Aligning high school educational opportunities with the knowledge and skills needed for higher-wage, in-demand jobs will open new paths for students and create a stronger collaboration with Arkansas business needs.
Incentives at colleges and universities for dedicated teacher “academies” could strengthen rural school systems who struggle to find quality teacher candidates.
And there are many questions, too.
Creation of school “transformation contracts” between public schools with D or F ratings or in need of “intensive” support is one area that needs more clarity. The proposal would permit a partnership between the public school and a better-performing open-enrollment charter school or other entity approved by the State Board of Education.
Despite the higher starting pay, questions remain about how the pay schedule works out for long-term educators and those who go above and beyond the minimum standards required for teaching in the state.
Without a doubt, the availability of vouchers — Education Freedom Accounts — will move students out of the public school system and into either private or home schooling. To what extent? The bill will wisely phase in voucher eligibility over three academic years, but the program today largely looks like a way to open the public funding spigot for people who have already chosen, and can afford, private schools. It’s requirement for accreditation, complying with health and safety laws and employee background checks and minimum expectations for teacher knowledge or experience are steps in the right direction, but it’s hard to know whether the intended standards are adequate.
Backers of the bill, such as Davis, say nothing about the bill attempts to defund public schools and that the state remains committed to public schools even as it gives parents and students more choice. Unfortunately, time is the only thing that will tell the state’s residents whether that’s an accurate assessment.
If the Sanders reforms do anything at all to weaken the state’s public schools, it should be considered a failure.
Likewise, time will tell whether Sanders and the Legislature have adequately planned for the funding necessary to make Arkansas LEARNS a sustainable set of reforms. The reforms will cost an estimated $297.5 million in the first year, with $150 million of that being new funds, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. In the second year, the total cost would increase to $343.3 million, including $250 million in new funding.
Such spending on education should certainly be welcome as long as the state takes the steps necessary to sustain the program, if it’s a success, for longer than the eight years, or less, that Sanders is at the helm of state government.