Senate Approves Sweeping Education Reforms
LITTLE ROCK – The Senate has approved legislation that makes the single largest investment in public education in Arkansas history.
Senate Bill 294, the governor’s education package, has 144 pages and 25 Senate co-sponsors.
The bill would raise the minimum salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000, and all teachers would receive a raise of at least $2,000.
It will add 120 literacy coaches to work across the state, and for children who struggle with learning to read it will provide grants of $500 to pay for tutors. Students will have to meet third grade reading standards to advance to the fourth grade.
The bill provides teachers with up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Teachers who excel can qualify for bonuses of $10,000. It also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the salary schedule that mandates teacher salaries depending on their years of experience and credentials.
Teachers with degrees from certified higher education institutions will qualify for more loan forgiveness programs.
School safety measures will be expanded under SB 294, which will provide training for school resource officers, and enhance training in crisis response and mental health.
The cap on school transfers from district to district will be repealed, but if the receiving district is already filled to capacity it could deny a proposed transfer. Local school officials could contract with an open enrollment charter school to take over failing school campuses.
Beginning in 2024-2025, high schools will offer a career-readiness pathway, to prepare students with job skills. It will be an alternative to academic curricula for students who choose to pursue a college degree.
Students will have to complete 75 hours of community service in order to graduate from high school.
A provision in SB 294 creates Education Freedom Accounts, which parents can draw on to pay tuition at private and parochial schools or to pay the expenses of home schooling. The state will put into the accounts an amount equal to 90 percent of per pupil foundation funding, which is $7,413 this year.
Schools will be prohibited from indoctrinating students with theories that conflict with the principle of equality under the law. An example in SB 294 of a prohibited ideology is critical race theory (CRT).
The Senate also approved SB 81, which gives parents more options to have offensive material removed from local libraries and school libraries. After making an objection to the librarian and if necessary making an appeal to the library board, parents would be able to appeal to the county Quorum Court or City Council. Both are composed of people elected by voters.
SB 81 removes the current exemption that protects librarians from criminal prosecution. If librarians knowingly maintain material that is deemed obscene, they could be prosecuted.
The Senate also passed SB 254 to eliminate write-in candidacies in state elections. Senators approved SB 199 to allow more medical malpractice lawsuits against physicians who perform gender transformation procedures on children. It allows lawsuits up to 15 years after the minor turns 18. For most medical malpractice suits the limit is two years after the injury.