OPINION: What have we ‘learned’ from the LEARNS Act

Sometime this week, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with great ceremony, will have inked her signature to the LEARNS Act, a sweeping educational bill of over 140 pages of legislative language.

And from this point on, the debate about such a large "omnibus bill," meaning one act covering several topics, will rage on if it is really good for the often slow-as-molasses and much talked over singular style bills coming from the Arkansas Legislature.

But the fact still remains, that with a powerful Republican super-majority in the Arkansas Legislature, the LEARNS Act passed 78-21. The bill was sent back to the state Senate, where it passed, 25-7 with one "present" vote last week with a super majority tally.

The amendments will take a day or two to approve, another day to get back on the Senate floor and Sanders will have her pen at the ready for a bill signing and much national and little state bravado.

The outcome.

Arkansans will pay more for school teachers' basic salaries. The Fair Teacher Dismissal Act, where districts must notify teachers each year whether or not they will be coming back is gone. So are the nonexistent Critical Race Theory courses, which were never taught anywhere, and many other changes are on the way from this bill.

There was, at least one, very emotional and yes, life-changing speech from the floor of the House against the bill. State Rep. Jim Wooten, a Republican from Beebe, in conservative White County, in Central Arkansas, gave a stemwinder of a talk from the "well" of the House against the measure.

The old former football coach and teacher did not, as it should be recorded, vote with the super majority, because the folks back home said the bill would ruin public education in Arkansas. He spoke soundly, sanely, forthrightly and emotionally from the heart. Wooten gave it his all, trying to stem what he knew was a wave of enthusiasm and very little research on the larger-than-usual and most complex bill.

He was not against all things in the bill, but he talked patiently, calmly and directly to the entire House about the reasons why the bill, in its present form, needed to be voted down.

But Rep. Wooten at the end of his talk gave us all something to digest: educational reform and educational policy should not be about politics, grandstanding or passing a bill based on the empty assumption of "freedom" for parents and "for the kids."

He gave a chilling scenario on the bill:

"We're headed right down the path back to where we were 50 years ago," he said.

Not a single Democrat, 18 in the 100-member House, voted for the bill.

All the Democrats say they are all in for educational transformation in Arkansas, but could not vote for this bill. Two other Republicans, Hope Duke, R-Gravette; and Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, also voted no.

The newcomer, Duke, is from the Hendren clan in extreme Northwestern Benton County, contrary Republicans at best and never one to fall-in-line with the status quo from the GOP.

Hensley, however, is another Republican, I'll wager, who went back home and carried back the doubts, fears and concerns from her voters. So, she too, said "no."

The only confusing vote was from Rep. Ron McNair, R-Harrison, voting present. He will soon regret his decision. Voting present gives no cover from either side. He will learn that quickly come re-election time.

Others in the GOP rank and file, who have felt left out of the process of putting this giant act together, I know many voted to be on the "good side of history," in making the state's terribly low entrance pay scale one of the best in the nation.

Arkansas was mired in the bottom five of starting teacher pay statistics. We have now jumped into the top five best in starting teacher pay. However, joining the states of Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia does give me a little pause of concern.

The debate for or against the bill in the House was only 90 minutes, with Wooten's emotional plea against the measure going a full 15 minutes.

Did we act too quickly to solve a myriad of our state's problems?

Only time will tell.

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.