Arkansas committee approves LEARNS bill

The Arkansas House Education Committee gave a "do pass" recommendation to a sweeping omnibus bill that would raise starting teacher salaries and provide "Educational Freedom Accounts" for all students by the 2025-2026 school year.

Democrats and Republicans expressed mixed feelings about the bill, with Democrats opposing the school choice option.

"Vouchers do not support students with disabilities, and it does exacerbate segregation, skirt accountability and transparency, funds discrimination and leaves underserved students and communities behind," said Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, before the vote. "We are constitutionally bound to provide an adequate and equitable education to all Arkansas students. This bill sets us up for future lawsuits for failure to do that."

Garner and Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, were the only no votes.

Republicans were more enthusiastic about the bill.

"I think this bill is a great bill," said Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, who chaired the Education Committee for eight years. "I don't think it is a 100%. I don't think anybody here does. There's things I don't agree with completely. I believe we can fix those things."

The LEARNS bill would increase starting teacher pay to $50,000 a year and require school districts to have a salary schedule. The omnibus bill also includes 120 literacy coaches and $500 tutoring stipends for K-3 students struggling with reading.

The bill would cost $298 million in the first year, with $150 million being new money, according to a fiscal impact statement released by the Arkansas Department of Education.

The increase in teachers' salaries would make up $180 million of the cost each year.

The bill now goes to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

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