Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday signed into law what she called “the largest overhaul of the state’s education system in Arkansas history.”
The “Arkansas LEARNS” initiative is an ambitious reform agenda that expands school choice, modernizes school transportation, restructures teacher compensation to pay more for performance, provides supplemental education for struggling students, and prohibits Arkansas public schools from indoctrinating students.
“We’ve seen how the status quo condemns Arkansans to a lifetime of poverty, and we’re tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings,” Sanders said. “We know that if we don’t plant this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line.”
Perhaps the boldest component of the initiative is the creation of Educational Freedom Accounts, which are similar to education savings account (ESA) policies in 11 other states. With an ESA, families can pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculums, online learning, special-needs therapy, and more. ESAs empower families to choose the learning environments that align with their values and best meet their children’s individual learning needs.
Eligibility for the ESAs phases in over three years. In the third year of the ESA program’s operation, all K-12 students will be eligible. In the first year of the ESA program (the 2023-24 academic year), all incoming kindergarten students in Arkansas will be eligible. So will students with disabilities, homeless students, children in foster care, the children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to low-performing district schools, or children enrolled in one of Arkansas’s other school choice programs.
According to a recent Morning Consult survey, 7 in 10 Arkansans support an ESA policy. Support is even higher among parents of school-aged children, 78% of whom support ESAs.
The Arkansas LEARNS initiative will significantly improve the state’s national standing on education issues. Last year, Arkansas ranked No. 18 in the nation for education choice on The Heritage Foundation’s Education Freedom Report Card. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
The enactment of a universal ESA would have boosted Arkansas to No. 5 in the nation, assuming other states’ policies remained constant. Of course, competition for the top five will be fierce as states such as Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas are also considering adopting universal education choice policies.
Arkansas’ initiative also takes important steps to protect school students from being exposed to indoctrination or discrimination.
The law requires the Arkansas Department of Education to review its “rules, policies, materials, and communications” to ensure that they are in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and do not “conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual’s color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law.”
The law also prohibits school faculty and staff or guest speakers from compelling students to “adopt, affirm, or profess an idea in violation” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such as that people of one race or ethnicity are inherently superior or inferior to anyone else, or that individuals should “be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex” or other characteristics protected by law.
The statute makes clear that it does not prohibit the discussion of ideas and or the teaching of history.
Students in Arkansas will still learn about the ugly aspects of American history, such as slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. However, the law will appropriately prohibit lessons that divide students into “oppressors” or “oppressed,” based solely on skin color or that associate certain traits with particular skin colors.
As Tony Kinnett recently reported in The Daily Signal, there are recorded instances of such lessons in critical race theory in Arkansas classrooms, despite the best efforts of mainstream media outlets to deny it.
With the enactment of the Arkansas LEARNS initiative, Sanders has raised the bar for conservative education reform. Arkansas will now be among the top states that empower families to choose the learning environments that work best for their kids.
Arkansas has also taken an important step to ensure that traditional public schools are focused on education, not indoctrination.
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