(WASHINGTON) -- Like other Republican governors, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is making school choice a high-profile political issue, declaring education reform her "top priority" and first big legislative play since taking office in January.
It's facing pushback from public school educators and some parents -- but Sanders is relishing the fight.
Thirteen days after painting her plan with broad strokes in the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union, Sanders unveiled the text of her much-touted omnibus education reform bill this week. While supporters applaud Republican lawmakers for quickly taking it up, critics are concerned the bill -- carrying massive implications on the state's education system -- is being "ramrodded" through the legislature, despite students' best interests.
"This will be the biggest overhaul in education, I think, anywhere in the country -- certainly in my home state of Arkansas -- and we look forward to setting the standard on how this can be done right and being a blueprint for other states across the country to follow," Sanders said in an interview Tuesday on Fox News, dismissing opposition as "the left mad that they're losing control of the system."
Two Republican state lawmakers on Monday filed the text of a 144-page bill, Arkansas LEARNS, just before close of business. By Wednesday, it had passed out of a Senate Education Committee, despite public opposition and bipartisan support for amendments, and by Thursday, the full Senate.
"I do probably like 60 to 70% of it," said State Sen. Greg Leding, Democratic minority leader, in Wednesday's hearing. "But as I've told a lot of people, if the last 30% of the cheeseburger is poison, it's still a pretty lousy cheeseburger."
More red states expand school choice
The bill lumps together dozens of policy changes, such as lifting teachers' starting salaries from the lowest to among the highest in the nation, banning teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity before fifth grade, as well as Critical Race Theory at all levels, and includes an ambitious proposal to install a universal school voucher program in Arkansas within three years -- a move advocates hail and critics warn against.
If the legislation is passed and signed, Arkansas could be the fifth state -- following Arizona, West Virginia, Iowa and Utah -- to enact universal school choice, as more Republican-led legislatures prioritize taking up school choice policies.
School choice -- or the distribution of school vouchers or scholarships -- essentially reallocates state funding to individual families that sign up, allowing their children to leave the public school system for any reason and use the money budgeted for them on private or home school instead. That will be around $7,500 in an "Education Freedom Account" for each Arkansas student, according to the proposed legislation and current funding.
"Arkansas, in passing this, would be the latest state to join the universal school choice revolution," said Corey DeAngelis, a prominent school choice advocate and senior fellow at the American Federation for Children. "The dominoes are falling and there's nothing the government school monopoly can do about it."
But more than a dozen Arkansans with ties to public education told ABC News they were concerned about the changes and the speed with which they're happening.
"With a bill of this size that fundamentally changes the entire public school system in Arkansas, to give less than 48 hours for the public to review it before brought to the Senate Education Committee for testimony is not fair to the taxpayers of this state," said Veronica Paulson, a parent of two public school children in Little Rock.
Stacey McAdoo, the state's "Teacher of the Year" in 2019, questioned whether Arkansas teachers were involved in writing the legislation.
"People need time to digest it. I'm still processing everything, " McAdoo told ABC News. "I don't think that I've had adequate time to be as prepared and comfortable with what exactly this is and what it means."
Asked about the two-day turnaround from filing to committee approval, Sanders' office dismissed the concerns raised by ABC News that there wasn't ample time to read the text.
"Arkansas LEARNS is something the Governor spoke about enacting for two years while she was campaigning," said spokesperson Alexa Henning. "The details of this legislation, which have been developed in collaboration with elected legislators for months, are not secret and have been available since the Governor announced the legislation on February 8. We welcome the conversation about how Arkansas LEARNS will give every child access to a quality education and set them on a path to success."
Paulson, who did not vote for Sanders, was among a dozen protesters who gathered outside the governor's mansion in Little Rock on Sunday night -- anticipating the bill's release -- with signs reading "public $ for public schools" and "teacher over vouchers."
"I'm very concerned about taxpayer dollars going to private schools that can discriminate against children," Paulson told ABC News. "Saying the money should follow the student makes children compete for an education, which should never be the case."
"I personally feel like this bill is an attack on public education," said Latoya Morgan, a librarian at Carver Elementary School in Little Rock. "I understand everybody wants what's best for their kids, right? But what if that's taking away from somebody else's child?"
Morgan argued vouchers would help families already paying for private school and hurt public school students in Arkansas, particularly those in rural areas who don't have many alternative options available to them.
Private schools aren't required to meet the same accountability standards as public schools, Morgan added, like providing transportation to all students or accepting those with behavioral issues. And vouchers don't always cover the full tuition of a private school, making the switch unattainable for some low-income families, forced to stay in a school with now-diminishing resources.
"Because if I'm in rural Arkansas, what other option do I have? What private choices do I have?" Morgan said. "And then if I have a behavior issue, because private schools can be selective about who they allow in, how will those kids be serviced by this system? Why are we not prioritizing a plan to invest in building a public education system that we can all be proud of in the state of Arkansas?"
Supporters of vouchers say they encourage competition among schools and allow parents the power to decide which schools work for their kids -- to "fund students, not systems."
"Maybe government schools would do a better job if they operated more like businesses and had incentives to cater to the needs of their customers," DeAngelis said.
State Rep. Tippi McCullough, a Democrat and former private school educator in Little Rock, told ABC News late Thursday she hopes there will be time for amendments in the House before the bill heads to Sanders' desk for signing.
"This complex bill has been rushed, but after only two days of bipartisan questioning that pointed out serious problems, sponsors promise they are open to amendments," she said. "Even though Democrats and educators haven’t been included in the process up to this point, in the spirit of the collaboration that the sponsors continue to tout, it is our hope that there will be a robust process to accept our clarifying and substantive amendments."
'This will devastate Arkansas'
An hour's drive away from Little Rock, in Rosebud, a town with a population of less than 500, Steve Grappe, chair of the Rural Caucus of Arkansas, organized an emergency Zoom meeting Sunday night, where he and 40 other participants crafted a "mobilization plan" to defeat the bill.
"We're trying to get in front of as many people as we can to let them know the dangers of what's happening," Grappe told ABC News. "What we think is going to happen is they're going to drop this bill and ramrod it through as fast as they can – and not give the people of Arkansas even a chance to digest what is in this and make a decision. So what we're trying to do is get people organized right now."
Grappe, a Democrat, shared the same concerns about how vouchers would impact rural areas which dominate the state's landscape.
"In many of our small towns, the school is the lifeblood of the town. It's the only thing keeping the town together," Grappe said. "Because rural Arkansas has been leaking population over the last two decades, this will devastate it. Try to get people to move into a town that doesn't even have a school, and you got to send your kids 30 miles to school. We're never going to recruit new business and new people and these talents are going to dry up."
Grappe said Sanders isn't necessarily thinking about what's best for Arkansas but what's best for her resume. (Sanders' office said, "The only people talking about 'national ambitions' is the media," when asked about the criticism.)
"School choice is a national Republican ambition, and I think that Sarah Huckabee Sanders has higher ambitions than a governor. She's trying to prove that Arkansas is the most conservative MAGA state in the country. And I don't think it has anything to do with the welfare of our citizens," he said.
He called efforts to slow or stop the legislation a "long shot" but "our only shot -- because this is going to devastate the state of Arkansas."
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