Governor Sanders Unveils Bold Plan for Education Freedom in Arkansas

Days ago, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders unveiled a sweeping new education package that would overhaul the state’s education system with a focus on education freedom, student literacy, and teacher retention. The Arkansas LEARNS Plan, which stands for Learning, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School Safety, contains a number of notable provisions aimed at reimagining how Arkansas students learn – including the creation of universal education freedom accounts that any Arkansas family can access by the 2025-2026 school year.

As she stated in her response to President Biden’s State of the Union address, “My plan empowers parents with real choices, improves literacy and career readiness, and helps put a good teacher in every classroom by increasing their starting salary by the lowest to one of the highest in the nation.”

Already this year, Iowa and Utah joined Arizona and West Virginia as the nation’s first states with universal education savings accounts (ESAs) that allow state education dollars to follow the student, not the system. ESAs can be used for a broad range of educational expenses that include tuition, testing fees, school uniforms, books, supplies, and more. The goal of these programs is to recognize that not every school will be the best fit for every student, and the only way we make sure other public and non-public educational options are available to families is for the funding to follow them. ALEC’s model policy, The Hope Scholarship Act, is closely based on West Virginia’s ESA but makes all students eligible to participate on day one.

In addition to these universal education freedom accounts, the plan also looks to improve teacher quality and retention by increasing the minimum level of base pay from $36,000 (48th in the country) to $50,000 (4th in the country), offer up to $10,000 worth of bonuses to the most successful teachers, and provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. The Governor estimates that 15,249 Arkansas teachers would see their pay increased to the new minimum of $50,000, and teachers already making more than $50,000 would also receive a pay increase under the proposal.

Other notable provisions in the LEARNS Plan include:

  • Students cannot advance to 4th grade if they are not reading at a 3rd grade level
  • $500 stipends for K-3 students that are not reading at a 3rd grade level. The stipends may be used for supplemental education services aimed at improving the student’s reading skills
  • New 75-hour community service requirement for high school graduation
  • New dual-track career ready diploma program
  • Create 120 literacy coach positions that will be deployed across the state
  • Remove limit on the number of charter schools
  • Remove limit on the number of school choice transfers
  • Provide 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for all Arkansas public-school teachers
  • Reward good teachers with up to $10,000 in bonuses

Governor Sanders’ LEARNS Plan represents a fundamental reimagining of education in the state of Arkansas with a renewed focus on students, parents, and teachers as opposed to systems. By increasing access to educational options, rewarding quality teachers, and offering better career/workforce development resources, the LEARNS Plan could have a lasting and significant positive impact on current and future generations of students.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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