Letter: Help ‘Say No’ locally to LEARNS Act

If you care about your local public school, pay attention. Your local public school is in danger of losing funding if you do not act now. Find a place to sign the “Say No to Learns” veto referendum petition to get this nonpartisan issue on the 2024 ballot (local times and places are listed after this letter). Let the people, not special interest groups, decide whether to use taxpayer money to help fund private, parochial, and home schools.

With little to no input from Arkansas educators, the Arkansas 94 th General Assembly, following the beckoning by Governor Sanders, hastily passed the LEARNS ACT, a 145-page omnibus law that will change public education as we know it, and not for the better. It is doubtful that you state senator and representative had time to read, much less research, the bill before voting on it. Many people say that they do not know anything about the Act or its implications for Arkansas schools.

Not all of the LEARNS Act is bad. Under the LEARNS Act, beginning teachers will be paid a minimal salary of $50,000. Teachers deserve a serious pay raise. Previous governor Asa Hutchison had an opportunity to use surplus funds to raise salaries for teachers, but chose to leave the decision to his successor. A base salary for teachers of $50,000 had already been proposed and should have been voted on separately from the rest of the LEARNS Act. The problem with the $50,000 starting salary is that many of Arkansas’ schools have no means to support, much less sustain it, and veteran teachers who should expect step increases and incentives for additional preparation are likely to be left out.

Most questions about the LEARNS Act have yet to be answered. The greatest threat to our public schools is that taxpayer money will be used to provide vouchers for parents to send their children to private or parochial schools, essentially giving parents who are already sending their children to private schools a huge financial break. The reality is that most parents will still send their children to public schools. Vouchers will not cover the full cost of tuition, pay for transportation, or include food costs. Private or parochial schools do not have to accept anyone who applies, nor do they have to provide services for the disabled.

Although there are several successful private schools in more heavily populated areas of Arkansas, they are quite expensive and exclusive. The LEARNS Act, however, will encourage less successful (for-profit) private or charter schools to pop up to cash in. Private schools do not have to follow the same standards or requirements that public schools do. They do not have to hire licensed teachers, nor do their students have to take the same assessments that public school students do.

Even more frightening to me is that within three years, Arkansas parents may receive funding for homeschooling their children. I am aware that many well educated and qualified parents homeschool their children for various reasons. However, Arkansas requires no minimal qualifications for parents, no meeting of minimal standards, and no standardized, national assessment of student learning. Will less scrupulous parents try to cash in without understanding the long-term disadvantages their children will encounter?

Focus groups across the state working with the Arkansas Department of Education are trying to hammer out the “nuts and bolts” of what the Act means to the curriculum of Arkansas public school children. In my 50-plus years as a secondary and teacher preparation educator, I have witnessed significant change in educator preparation and curriculum standards for K-12 students. A description of that evolution would require much more space than this column allows, but I believe that in recent decades we made great strides in what K-12 students should be expected to learn. Arkansas student performance rose several steps on national indicators for a short period of time; however, politically motivated disagreement on how student learning should be assessed sent ratings spiraling downward again.

The LEARNS Act will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement and billions to sustain. Arkansas public schools will lose. Your children will lose. Go to https://www.saynotolearns.org to find out how you can stop this disaster in the making.

— Judy Harrison, professor emeritus, Henderson State University

Say No to LEARNS signing opportunities in Clark County
Every Wednesday through July
Clark County Library, 1-3 p.m.

Every Thursday through July
Clark County Library, 10 a.m. – noon

Friday, July 14
Gurdon Dollar General, 4-6 p.m.

Saturday, July 15
Knit Unto Others, 628 Main Street, Arkadelphia, 10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

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