LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Some parents in Arkansas could get access to school vouchers that would help pay for private school tuition and home schooling as soon as this fall under a bill the state House approved Thursday as part of a massive education overhaul,
The majority-Republican House voted 78-21 to approve the measure, which also would raise minimum teacher salaries and place new restrictions on classroom instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The legislation now heads back to the Senate, which approved an earlier version of the bill last week. A final vote there would send the plan to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk for her signature, a significant win for her policy agenda.
“It allows parents and children to make the choice that is best for them, and when we do that, we encourage that innovation and that ingenuity that we need right here in the state of Arkansas,” Republican Rep. Carlton Wing said during debate over the bill. “It is time for something that can give us a lift.”
The proposal would phase in over three years an “education freedom account” to pay for private and home schooling equal to 90% of the state’s per-student funding for public schools, which is currently $7,413.
Similar programs exist in Arizona and West Virginia, and they’ve been proposed in at least a dozen other states this year.
Opponents have said they’re worried the bill will divert money from public schools toward private institutions that aren’t required to accept all students.
Rep. Jim Wooten, one of three Republicans to vote against the legislation, warned his colleagues that “this bill will come back to haunt you.”
“Through this bill we have managed to insult, alienate, dislike, show disdain for every single person in this state that has anything to do with public education,” Wooten said.
The Department of Education has estimated the legislation will cost more than $297 million to implement the first year and about $343 million the following year.
The proposed education overhaul also would raise minimum teacher salaries by 39% to $50,000 a year following calls by Democrats and Republicans over the past several months to raise starting pay from one of the lowest rates in the country.
“These sweeping changes will address teachers’ needs, defend parents’ rights, and, most importantly, give our kids the quality education they deserve,” Sanders said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
Democrats and teachers groups, however, have complained about higher salaries being attached to vouchers and other proposals they oppose. They’ve questioned whether the legislation will wind up saddling districts with unfunded mandates.
Opponents have also criticized the measure for eliminating the state-mandated salary schedule that sets pay ranges based on years of service and education, a move they say could punish veteran teachers. The bill requires school districts to set their own salary schedules.
Other provisions include a prohibition against classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation before 5th grade, similar to a Florida restriction that critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Another part of the legislation writes into law an executive order Sanders signed in January that prohibits teaching critical race theory,
Democrats have warned that the legislation and its voucher program could invite a new court fight, 16 years after the decades-long Lake View school funding case ended. That case led to changes in how the Arkansas Legislature determines and prioritizes school funding levels.
“This is not a public education bill. We can do better,” Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers said. before the vote. “And if we don’t do better now, we will certainly be forced to do better later.”
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