Feb 21, 2023 - News

Opponents say Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education reform is rushed

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, governor of Arkansas, speaks while unveiling the Arkansas LEARNS education bill at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, US, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders unveiling the Arkansas LEARNS education bill at the Arkansas Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 8. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Filed near 5pm Monday — a federal holiday — Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' ballyhooed "LEARNS bill" had educators and some lawmakers scrambling to digest its many nuances by Wednesday morning.

  • The Senate education committee meeting where the measure will be debated is scheduled to convene at 9am and LEARNS is the only item on the agenda.

Why it matters: The 144-page bill is sweeping legislation that transforms much of Arkansas' education system — from high school graduation requirements to holding back some elementary students that don't meet minimum reading requirements.

Context: Under former Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed budget for fiscal 2024, more than $2.5 billion of taxpayer money was earmarked for the public school fund — roughly 40% of the state's $6.3 billion budget.

State of play: Public opponents and supporters can testify at the committee meeting before a vote on the bill. Six of the eight members are Republicans, and it's expected they'll recommend "do pass" to the state Senate. This could happen as early as Wednesday afternoon when both chambers convene.

Yes, but: Amendments could gum up approvals. Procedures for moving a bill as broad as LEARNS are usually slowed down, giving all parties the opportunity to consider details.

What they're saying: Sanders is "counting on the fact that people aren't going to be able to get through 144 pages and understand an eighth of what it says," Grant Tennille, chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party, told reporters Tuesday.

  • Tennille and education policy director of Arkansas Advocates for Children, Olivia Garner, told Axios they believe the bill's late Monday filing was deliberate to minimize lawmakers' possible debate.
  • Garner plans to testify against the bill Wednesday.

The intrigue: While annual budgeting is addressed in the bill, it's unclear how anything beyond current spending would be paid for, especially if Sanders intends to fulfill her promise to phase out income taxes.

  • "There is nothing conservative about voting for a bill without any idea about what it's going to cost," Tennille said.

The other side: "The details of this legislation, which have been developed in collaboration with elected legislators for months, are not secret and have been available since the governor announced the legislation on February 8," a spokesperson for Sanders told Axios via email.

  • The bill, if passed, will be funded through a mix of general revenue, balancing the education fund and "a directive to reduce internal state education spending that's not focused on critical priority needs like literacy," the spokesperson added.

What we're watching: The education committee meeting and the possible amendments.


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