(ARKANSAS) -- In a major legislative victory for Arkansas' new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday signed the LEARNS Act into law, making the state the latest to adopt what she calls a system-changing universal school voucher program, which critics warn could decimate the public school system.
Sanders' signature at the state Capitol in Little Rock comes 16 days after the 144-page bill was introduced.
"I am not interested in being a caretaker of the failed status quo. I vowed to be a changemaker for our people," she tweeted ahead of the signing. "Today, I am delivering on that promise, and will sign into law my transformational education plan, unleashing a new era of freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all."
Backed by a Republican supermajority in the state Legislature, the omnibus bill cornerstone to Sanders' education agenda saw a 26-8 vote in the State Senate and 78-21 in the House.
"I know it is not popular, I know it went against the Republican Party platform, but right is right and wrong is wrong," said State Rep. Jim Wooten, a former public school teacher, questioning his colleagues' support. "I would say that 50% of them are trying to get close to the governor, and the other 50% are afraid of her."
In its short lifespan, the LEARNS Act, intended to revamp education from early childhood classes through the 12th grade, has seen both praise and protests.
The legislation calls for raising minimum teacher salaries, introducing universal pre-K, banning teaching on "gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual reproduction" before fifth grade -- prompting comparisons to similar legislation in Florida -- and banning curriculum that would "indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory."
When I sign my education plan into law today, CRT and all forms of racism and leftist indoctrination in our schools will be outlawed.— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) March 8, 2023
Under my leadership we will do what's right, not what's politically correct or convenient.
It also makes Arkansas the fifth state -- following Arizona, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia -- to enact a universal program for so-called school choice, as more Republican-led legislatures prioritize taking up voucher policies.
"Arkansas is the 5th government school monopoly domino to fall in the past 2 years. A school choice revolution has ignited and there's nothing the teachers unions can do about it," Corey DeAngelis, a prominent advocate for such programs and senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, tweeted on Wednesday.
Supporters of school choice say the vouchers, or "Education Freedom Accounts," as they'll be called under Sanders, allow taxpayers to support "students not systems" in the redirection of public funds to private schools.
"This isn't an us vs. them, red vs. blue, teachers vs. the legislature," said State Sen. Breanne Davis, who introduced the bill. "This is all of us working together and rooting for the success of our children."
The cost of each student's "Education Freedom Account" to pay for private and home-schooling must be equal to 90% of the state's per-student funding for public schools, which is currently $7,413, according to the Associated Press.
But critics say the voucher program essentially functions as a tax stipend for families with the means to enroll their child into private or charter institutions or home-schooling, among other concerns like funding the program long-term.
"At the end of the day, this is only going to be for a few people," said Jim Ross, a history teacher at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who said the program could serve to "re-segregate" Arkansas schools. "And it's gross that no one will be honest about that."
Those voting against the bill also expressed wanting separation of its sweeping reforms.
"We've never put this many important topics into one piece of legislation and voted on it with one vote," state Sen. Reginald Murdock, a Democrat, said on Tuesday.
'The education governor'
In her inaugural address, Sanders -- a former Trump White House spokesperson whose father, Mike Huckabee, previously served as Arkansas' governor -- said she hopes to be known as "the education governor." She then laid out details of her agenda in the Republican State of the Union response last month.
But the overwhelming support she's seen since in the legislature hasn't been matched by a universally positive public response.
More than 1,000 students at Little Rock Central High School, Sanders' alma mater, walked out of classes on Friday to protest LEARNS.
On Tuesday, when a group of 10 students tried to speak about the bill at the state Capitol, State Sen. Jane English required the students only speak on its procedural amendment, leaving them feeling "silenced" and "belittled," according to Little Rock Central senior Gryffyn May.
"It was already stressful to have to speak in front of a Senate but then to have to speak without a prepared speech, while you're constantly getting interrupted, was much worse," May told ABC News in a phone interview. "I absolutely had frustrated tears, but they were also tears of embarrassment ... I think it just hit me that this bill was going to be passed on their time, no matter what."
Little Rock Central Junior Addison McCuien told the lawmakers on Tuesday, "I started off my speech here by saying that I wanted to thank y'all for the opportunity to speak. However, I take that back. You're not allowing us the opportunity to speak."
McCuien and May are among the students and educators planning to hold a protest on Wednesday afternoon at the state Capitol. Although the bill will have already been signed, May said it will give students the chance to voice concerns they weren't able to during the session.
"We were completely shut down when people were voting on it, but we're not going to give up the walk away," May said. "We're still going to be out here calling out what's a bad idea."
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