LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In her first major policy news conference, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her much anticipated Arkansas LEARNS education plan on Wednesday.
Calling it the most “far-reaching, bold and conservative education reforms anywhere in the entire country,” Sanders outlined significant changes to teacher pay, school choice and early education with an emphasis on literacy.
“Arkansas LEARNS is a comprehensive blueprint to meet teachers’ needs, respect parents’ rights and, most importantly, deliver the quality education that our kids deserve,” she said.
Under the proposed plan, Sanders said teachers would be paid $50,000 annually, making Arkansas the fifth highest in the nation for teacher pay. Additional incentives will be complete student loan forgiveness for teaching in areas of highest need and $10,000 in bonuses available to high-performing teachers.
“Instead of being 48th in the nation for starting teacher salary, we will now be in the top five,” the governor said.
The proposed legislation would create an Education Freedom Account to fund school choice, whether it be public, private, parochial or home school for Arkansas families, the governor said. This program would be phased in, with an initial emphasis on what Sanders called “at-risk families,” followed by an ultimate state-wide rollout in three years.
“Families find themselves trapped in failing schools only because they live in the wrong zip code,” the governor said.
Sanders emphasized how the choice of where to send students would empower parents. She also pointed out that education’s emphasis would be on reading, writing and arithmetic, with “no indoctrination.”
Education would be to allow graduates to “succeed early in life,” the governor said.
EARLY EDUCATION AND LITERACY
Early education improvements would be accomplished by streamlining existing programs, including program funding, Sanders said.
In early education, the emphasis would be on literacy, with a benchmark that children can read at a third-grade level by the time they graduate from that grade. Currently, only 35% of Arkansas students can read at grade level, the governor said.
To assist in this role, Sanders said the program would call for 120 “highly trained” reading coaches across the state, coupled with $500 grants available for student families to take advantage of the coaching if students need to catch up.
High school students will have a dual diploma program. Under this program, they would be able to choose career-diploma paths in high school to select their post-graduation path, the governor said. They would choose courses from a course catalog to facilitate this.
“This is the most substantial overhaul of our state’s education system in Arkansas history,” Sanders said. “And frankly, it could not come soon enough.”
Sander’s speech was followed by House Speaker Matthew Shepard (R-El Dorado), who indicated his support for the plan and his looking forward to it being debated in the legislature. He was followed by Senate Majority Leader Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), who said he was “excited to get this bill passed.”
Sec. of Education Jacob Oliva also spoke, calling the governor’s proposal “one of the most historic moments in the history of education” by creating different pathways for students.
During questions, the governor said the plan was estimated to cost roughly $300 million in the first year, with $150 million as new spending.
Oliva said, to a question, that the specifics of the Education freedom account program were “still being worked out,” but the money allocated would be roughly 90% of the current per-student funding school districts received.
Sanders said the proposed legislation was before the Bureau of Legislative Research and would be before the legislature soon.