aka: Act 237 of 2023

The LEARNS Act (Act 237 of 2023) was the signature piece of legislation promoted by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the 2023 session of the Arkansas General Assembly, her first session as governor of the state.

After her election, Sanders indicated that her top priority would be a bill to change the public elementary and secondary education system in the state. On February 8, 2023, she held a press conference at the Arkansas State Capitol together with various Republican Party officials to announce some of the basics of her plan, which was still being drafted in secret. These included: a starting teacher pay set at $50,000, the creation of a voucher program (called “education freedom accounts”) that could be used to pay for tuition at a private school, twelve weeks of maternity leave for teachers, bonuses for select teachers, programs to increase literacy, the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, and the requirement that poorly performing public school districts partner with a charter school. Sanders described the plan as “the most far-reaching, bold, conservative education reform in America.”

While Republicans nearly unanimously lined up in support of the plan, Democrats in the legislature were unanimously opposed to it, noting that they had attempted to pass, earlier in the session, a straight teacher salary increase, with no support from Republicans. Specifically, the voucher program came under early scrutiny by educators and other groups, such as the Arkansas Public Policy Panel (APPP), Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the Little Rock (Pulaski County) branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Little Rock Education Association (LREA). However, the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative/libertarian think tank founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, came out in full support of the legislation, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published editorials praising it. Representative Jim Wooten of Beebe (White County), a rare Republican opponent of vouchers for private schools, filed two bills before the LEARNS Act was itself formally released, requiring that 1) private schools accepting state funding conduct student assessment tests, and 2) private schools provide transportation to students within a thirty-five-mile radius of their campus. Neither bill advanced out of committee.

The following week, many educators from around the state began showing up at the Arkansas State Capitol to voice their concerns regarding the proposed plan. Writing for the Arkansas Times, Baker Kurrus—who had overseen the Little Rock School District after it was taken over by the state during the administration of Governor Asa Hutchinson, and then was fired following his criticism of charter schools—noted that most of the voucher money would go to students already in private schools, which would drain resources from public schools: “There are well over 10,000 students in Central Arkansas in private schools. That’s some $64 million in new spending a year in Pulaski County alone.” The main problem in education disparity, he added, was economic segregation. Representative Bruce Cozart, who would eventually vote for the LEARNS Act, was reported as saying in a conversation with educators, “The rich want vouchers. That’s who this legislation is for. The rich. They want it and they are going to get it.”

Senator Breanne Davis of Russellville (Pope County) formally filed the LEARNS Act, SB294, late in the afternoon on Monday, February 20, 2023, with numerous Republican co-sponsors in the Senate and House. Despite the bill being 144 pages in length, Republicans planned a vote on it in the Senate Committee on Education on Wednesday, February 22, provoking a protest from Democrats, who insisted that time (more than one business day) was needed to read such a lengthy bill and prepare for any thoughtful discussion of it. Many educators wondered how the bill would fit with the Arkansas Constitution’s requirement that the state “maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and…adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education,” especially in the light of Arkansas Supreme Court precedents such as Lake View v. Huckabee. (Interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Theresa Hall, superintendent of Catholic schools in Arkansas, objected to any attempt to amend the bill in such a way as to require that private schools accepting vouchers also accept all students who apply.) Despite acknowledgements that the bill would require amendments, SB294 passed quickly through committee on February 22 and proceeded to a full vote in the Senate the following day, where it passed 25–7, with only Republican Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana (Miller County) voting with all Democrats against the bill.

Approximately ninety members of the public showed up to testify before the House Education Committee on February 28, 2023. The committee passed the bill the following day, and on March 2, 2023, the full House voted 78–21 for the LEARNS Act. The yes votes were exclusively Republican. Three Republicans did vote against the bill—Hope Duke of Gravette (Benton County), Julie Mayberry of Hensley (Pulaski County), and Jim Wooten of Beebe —while another Republican, Ron McNair of Harrison (Boone County), voted present. Rep. Wooten, prior to the vote, claimed that certain House members had been threatened with the withholding of funding from their districts (or with primary elections) should they not vote for the bill.

On March 3, 2023, students at Little Rock Central High School, of which Gov. Sanders is an alumna, held a mass walk-out to protest the bill; the event attracted national attention. Before the walkout, a group of students had issued a letter protesting the bill and Sanders’s invocation of Central High to advance her agenda. More than 1,000 students participated, many of them decrying the bill’s ban on “critical race theory,” a previously obscure academic theory that had, since 2020, become a conservative bugbear across the nation, with many Republican governors attacking it as “indoctrination.” Bans on critical race theory had been employed, as in Florida, to limit classroom discussion on different aspects of African American history.

Sanders signed the bill into law on March 8, 2023, at a ceremony in the Arkansas State Capitol, where she was surrounded by students from Calvary Academy, a private school affiliated with First Pentecostal Church in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), founded with the mission of providing an “education founded upon the Bible.” Students from Central High School protested at the capitol after the signing ceremony.

After the law had been signed, concerns about its contents increased. For example, it was noted by many superintendents that the law, so far as the base pay of $50,000 was concerned, made no distinction for teachers working on extended contracts. Second, no funding was offered for raising the salaries of teachers funded by federal title funds, leaving school districts to make up the gap. Third, the law was criticized for providing no funding for additional teaching positions in growing school districts. Fourth, the lack of funding for merit-based raises (depending upon years of service, advanced degrees, etc.) was regarded as making $50,000 not only a minimum salary but also functionally a maximum salary. Finally, the text of the law states, “For the 2023–2024 school year, each teacher shall be paid a salary that is at least two thousand dollars ($2,000) greater than his or her current salary as of September 1, 2022.” This raised questions as to whether teachers in high-paying districts who move, during this time, to low-paying districts would continue to receive their higher salary, as well as whether the salary bump applies only to that specific school year.

On April 9, 2023, the Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) began the process of working to get on the next ballot a referendum that would repeal the LEARNS Act. Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected proposed ballot titles twice before, on June 5, 2023, approving the group’s ballot language for the referendum for the second time.

The Arkansas Department of Education distributed a fifteen-page document dated May 3, 2023, to education leadership presenting a draft statement of assurance, intended to be signed each year by superintendents, stating that districts comply with orders set down in the LEARNS Act, such as the prohibition of so-called indoctrination and the teaching of critical race theory. In May 2023, state lawmakers approved the reallocation of $34.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to support the hiring of literacy coaches and tutors pursuant to the LEARNS Act.

Phillips County residents and school advocates filed a suit on May 8, 2023, to challenge the LEARNS Act. They announced their intention to stop a charter school group from taking over the MarvellElaine School District, on the grounds that the LEARNS Act had not yet taken effect, so the state could not use the law to take over the district. The lawsuit centered around the constitutional requirement that votes on emergency clauses be taken separately from the bill itself, which did not occur, calling into question whether the act could yet be enforced. They also argued that the LEARNS Act should not go into effect while litigation moved forward. Later that month, the state Department of Education fired the majority of the school district staff, sending affected staff letters inviting them to apply for a position with the Friendship Education Foundation, the charter management group that had secured the contract with the state to oversee district operations. On May 26, 2023, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued a temporary restraining order, halting the implementation of the act until a later hearing could determine whether votes for the act were taken properly. The state sought an emergency stay of the temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of the LEARNS Act, but on June 2, 2023, the Supreme Court of Arkansas denied the request. Griffin filed a brief on June 6, 2023, claiming that the law was protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

For additional information:
Anderson, Tom. “Arkansas LEARNS Teacher Salaries Are Screwed Up.” Blue Hog Report, March 27, 2023. https://www.bluehogreport.com/2023/03/27/arkansas-learns-teacher-salaries-are-screwed-up/ (accessed April 4, 2023).

Bailey, Austin. “A Hard Lesson to Learn.” Arkansas Times, April 2023, pp. 23–24. Online at https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/04/10/a-hard-lesson-for-arkansas-to-learn (accessed April 10, 2023).

Earley, Neal. “144-Page LEARNS Act Filed in Legislature.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 21, 2023, pp. 1A, 8A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/21/144-page-learns-act-filed-in-legislature/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Activist Group Seeks Repeal of LEARNS Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 12, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/12/group-plans-to-pursue-repeal-of-sanders-learns/ (accessed April 12, 2023).

———. “AG Rejects LEARNS Act Referendum Draft.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 25, 2023, pp. 1A, 7A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/25/citing-misleading-language-arkansas-attorney/ (accessed April 25, 2023).

———. “Ballot Bid Resubmitted to Repeal LEARNS Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 28, 2023, pp. 1B, 8B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/28/group-seeking-repeal-of-sanders-learns-act/ (accessed April 28, 2023).

———. “Ballot Item to Repeal LEARNS Act Rejected Again.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 12, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/12/ballot-language-for-a-proposed-referendum-to/ (accessed May 12, 2023).

———. “Governor Signs LEARNS Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 9, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/09/sanders-signs-arkansas-learns-her-education/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Griffin: Block of LEARNS Risks ‘Chaos.'” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 8, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/08/opponents-in-learns-act-case-file-second-set-of/ (accessed June 8, 2023).

———. “Griffin Certifies Ballot Language on Third Try.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 6, 2023, pp. 1A, 7A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/06/attorney-general-approves-wording-of-proposed/ (accessed June 6, 2023).

———. “High Court Maintains Block on LEARNS Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 3, 2023, pp. 1A, 5A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/02/arkansas-learns-act-holdup-to-continue-state-supreme-court-rules/ (accessed June 5, 2023).

———. “House Passes Revised School Bill.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 3, 2023, pp. 1A, 8A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/03/house-passes-amended-education-bill-sends-it-back/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Justices Consider LEARNS Suit Briefs.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 7, 2023, pp. 1A, 5A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/07/both-sides-submit-arguments-on-order-blocking/ (accessed June 7, 2023).

———. “LEARNS Act Goes to Senate for a Final Vote.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 7, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/07/sanders-amended-education-bill-heads-back-to-full/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “LEARNS Legislation Is Approved by Panel.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 2, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/02/sanders-education-bill-clears-committee-heads-to/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “New Student Test in the Works.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 23, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/23/new-student-assessment-test-will-be-in-place-in/ (accessed May 23, 2023).

———. “Rules for Vouchers Awaited by Many.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 30, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/30/private-schools-parents-await-details-on-learns/ (accessed May 1, 2023).

———. “Sanders Education Plan Clears Senate.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 24, 2023, pp. 1A, 5A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/24/sanders-education-bill-clears-arkanas-senate/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Sanders to Crowd: Lobby Lawmakers for Education Bill.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 22, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/22/sanders-education-bill-goes-before-senate/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Sanders Unveils State Education Plan.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 9, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/09/sanders-education-plan-includes-50000-minimum/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Senate Passes Education Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 8, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/08/sanders-education-bill-passes-senate-heads-to/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “State Asks Court to Lift LEARNS Act Roadblock.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 31, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/31/arkansas-attorney-general-asks-court-to-reverse/ (accessed May 31, 2023).

———. “Suit Seeks to Stop Takeover of District.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 9, 2023, pp. 1A, 5A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/09/lawsuit-filed-challenging-learns-act-in-effort-to/ (accessed May 10, 2023).

———. “Tweets Spark LEARNS Act Legal Objection.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 15, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/15/tweets-spark-learns-act-legal-objection/ (accessed May 15, 2023).

Earley, Neal, and Daniel McFadin. “Senate Panel Approved Education Bill.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 23, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/23/senate-panel-approves-education-bill/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Earley, Neal, and Will Langhorne. “Public Weighs in on LEARNS.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 1, 2023, pp. 1A, 9A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/01/public-weighs-in-on-learns/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “State Schools Redo Remains in Transition.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 26, 2023, pp. 1A, 12A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/26/sanders-education-overhaul-seen-as-headed-toward/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Eichkorn, Paige. “Education Bill Protested at Central High.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 4, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/04/education-bill-protested-at-central-high/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “NLRSD Weighs Teacher Salaries under State Law.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 1, 2023, pp. 1B, 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/01/nlrsd-weighs-teacher-salaries-under-state-law/ (accessed May 1, 2023).

———. “Students Protest at Capitol after LEARNS Bill Signed.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 9, 2023, p. 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/09/students-protest-at-capitol-after-learns-bill/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Grajeda, Antoinette. “Citing Sovereign Immunity, Arkansas AG Calls on Court to Dismiss LEARNS Act Lawsuit.” Arkansas Advocate, June 6, 2023. https://arkansasadvocate.com/2023/06/06/citing-sovereign-immunity-arkansas-ag-calls-on-court-to-dismiss-learns-act-lawsuit/ (accessed June 7, 2023).

———. “Distance, Finances Will Affect Choices as Arkansas Education Freedom Account Rolls Out.” Arkansas Advocate, April 26, 2023. https://arkansasadvocate.com/2023/04/26/distance-finances-will-affect-choices-as-arkansas-educational-freedom-account-rolls-out/ (accessed April 26, 2023).

———. “Responses Filed to Arkansas AG’s Request to Toss LEARNS Act Restraining Order.” Arkansas Advocate, June 1, 2023. https://arkansasadvocate.com/2023/06/01/responses-filed-to-arkansas-ags-request-to-toss-learns-act-restraining-order/ (accessed June 2, 2023).

———. “What Is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?” Arkansas Advocate, March 8, 2023. https://arkansasadvocate.com/2023/03/08/how-will-the-learns-act-impact-arkansas-families/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Howell, Cynthia. “Bill Resegregates, Central Students Write Sanders.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 2, 2023, p. 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/02/bill-resegregates-central-students-write-sanders/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Early Reaction to Education Bill Mixed.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 21, 2023, pp. 1A, 8A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/21/early-reaction-to-education-bill-mixed/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “LEARNS Act Is Not Yet in Effect, Judge Decides.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 27, 2023, pp. 1A, 4A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/27/learns-act-is-not-yet-in-effect-judge-decides/ (accessed May 30, 2023).

———. “LRSD Leaders Talk LEARNS Ramifications.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 17, 2023, pp. 1B, 3B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/17/lrsd-leaders-talk-learns-ramifications/ (accessed April 17, 2023).

———. “Olivia Fields LEARNS Act Questions Online.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 30, 2023, p. 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/30/oliva-fields-learns-act-questions-online/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “Sanders, Oliva to Board: Plenty of Work Ahead.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 10, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/10/sanders-oliva-to-board-plenty-of-work-ahead/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

———. “State to Do LEARNS Guidance for Districts.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 9, 2023, pp. 1A, 7A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/10/state-to-do-learns-guidance-for-districts/ (accessed May 10, 2023).

———. “Union President Disputes Benefits of Education Act.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 31, 2023, p. 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/mar/31/union-president-disputes-benefits-of-education-act/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Kurrus, Baker. “School Vouchers Will Increase Economic Segregation.” Arkansas Times, February 15, 2023. https://arktimes.com/news/2023/02/15/school-vouchers-will-increase-economic-segregation (accessed March 31, 2023).

Miller, Remington, and Neal Earley. “Advocates: Education Bill Is Moving Too Fast.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 28, 2023, pp. 1A, 6A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/28/advocacy-leaders-call-for-more-time-before-house/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Murrell, L. C. “Schools Act Stirs Supers’ Reactions.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 9, 2023, pp. 1, 5. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/09/schools-act-stirs-pbsd-reaction/ (accessed April 10, 2023).

Noland, Ali. “Loads of Questions Demand Answers before Arkansas LEARNS Goes up for a Vote.” Arkansas Times, February 21, 2023. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/02/21/loads-of-questions-demand-answers-before-arkansas-learns-goes-up-for-a-vote (accessed March 31, 2023).

SB294. Arkansas State Legislature. https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bills/Detail?id=SB294&chamber=Senate&ddBienniumSession=2023%2F2023R (accessed March 31, 2023).

Snyder, Josh. “Act Creates Teacher Pay Uncertainty, Districts Say.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 2, 2023, pp. 1A, 8A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/02/state-says-it-will-fund-learns-raises-but/ (accessed April 3, 2023).

———. “New Website Presents LEARNS Act Details.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 15, 2023, pp. 1B, 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/15/oliva-new-learns-website-to-be-1-stop-shop-for/ (accessed April 17, 2023).

———. “Schools Keep Eye on Employee Exits.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 15, 2023, pp. 1A, 2A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/15/schools-keep-eye-on-employee-exits/ (accessed May 15, 2023).

“Reviews in Districts Mixed for LEARNS.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 3, 2023, pp. 1A, 2A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/apr/03/worry-optimism-expressed-as-superintendents-in/ (accessed April 3, 2023).

Thompson, Doug. “Education Bill Raises Rural Concerns.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 27, 2023, p. 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/feb/27/governors-education-bill-stirs-concern-in/ (accessed March 31, 2023).

Wickline, Michael. R. “$34M in Covid Aid Shifted to LEARNS.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 21, 2023, pp. 1B, 5B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/21/arkansas-lawmakers-ok-reallocation-of-347-million/ (accessed May 22, 2023).

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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