LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday approved a education overhaul that creates a new school voucher program, handing a major policy win to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that critics said could threaten support for public schools.
The Republican-held Senate voted 26-8 to send to Sanders the 145-page bill, which also raises minimum teacher salaries and puts new restrictions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bill was the top legislative priority for Sanders, the former White House press secretary who took office in January as governor. She said she planned to sign the measure into law on Wednesday.
"I'm ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long," Sanders said in a statement. "Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas."
Over three years, the plan will phase in an "education freedom account" to pay for private and home schooling costs equal to 90% of the state's per-student funding for public schools, which is currently $7,413. It's part of a renewed push for such voucher programs following the COVID-19 pandemic that's been fueled in part by fights over school curriculum.
Similar savings account programs exist in Arizona and West Virginia, and they've been proposed in at least a dozen other states this year.
"We are called to empower families to have the freedom to make the best decisions for their kids," Republican Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill's sponsor, said before the vote.
Democrats and teachers' groups opposed to the voucher plan have said it will threaten public schools by diverting resources to private schools that aren't required to accept all students. Opponents also have said they're concerned that the legislation could create unfunded mandates for districts in the long run.
Democratic Sen. Fred Love said he was worried the program would further segregate public schools.
"I'm pretty sure none of us want to go back there," Love said before the vote. "But it is my job as a state senator to ring the alarm when I see something going wrong, and I will say this bill is heading us in the wrong direction."
The 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.
The bill passed on a mostly party-line vote, with two Republicans joining the Senate's six Democrats to oppose the measure. GOP Sen. Bryan King, who voted against it, said he was concerned about the long term cost once vouchers are fully implemented. State education officials have estimated the legislation will cost than $297 million in the first year and about $343 million the following year.
"I'm just concerned in years three and four, God forbid something bad happens, that eventually you can't pay for it," King said after the vote.
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 and teachers' groups have criticized other parts of the bill, including eliminating the state-mandated salary schedule for teachers that sets pay ranges based on education and years of experience. Critics say the move could punish veteran teachers. The legislation requires school districts to set their own salary schedules.
The bill also creates new initiatives aimed at improving the state's literacy rates, by hiring "literacy coaches" to help students.