The plan proposed by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Arkansas), called Arkansas LEARNS, consists of three areas: (1) Educate Kids, (2) Empower Parents, and (3) Recruit & Retain Good Teachers.
Sanders, who took office just four weeks ago, says only 35% of Arkansas third-graders can read at grade level. To combat this, the governor is creating "a unified system" to expand access to high-quality education from birth to 12th grade. Moreover, 120 literacy coaches will be deployed across the state to "maximize student learning," and K-3 students struggling to read at grade level will be eligible for $500 per year for supplemental education services.
"Before advancing to fourth grade, students must be able to read at a third-grade level," says the governor's office.
The Empower Parents section involves education freedom accounts so that "every family can choose the school that serves their kid best."
As far as recruiting and retaining good teachers, Sanders wants to increase the minimum base salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000 while also providing for 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, and rewarding "good teachers" with up to $10,000 bonuses.
Nicholas Horton of Opportunity Arkansas Foundation likes what he sees.
"In some cases, we've got low-income kids in bad school districts who are trapped there and they don't have the resources to go out and get into a better school district or go to a private school or home school or any of these other things," says Horton.
"So, the education freedom component of this plan is really by far, I think, the most significant, the most transformational – and it's just a really exciting thing that's going to it's going to finally create a level playing field in our education system."
Arkansas Democrats clearly do not care for the plan. Grant Tennille, chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, contends the new governor isn't taking her job seriously:
"Gov. Sanders unveiled some of the incomplete details about the education scheme she continues to brag about but fails to deliver on. What we do know is that she's proposed the biggest voucher scam in the entire country, a full-on dismantling of Arkansas public schools so destructive she knew she had to dress it up with popular policies like the $50,000 teacher salary minimum that she plagiarized from Arkansas Democrats.
"We will not be bought. Unproven voucher scams like this one, likely copy-and-pasted from an out-of-state think tank, are an existential threat to Arkansas' public schools and a sweetheart deal that will only benefit lobbyists, special interests, and the rich over everyday Arkansas students, families, and school communities. We are a hard NO on the Sanders voucher scheme."
The House Minority Leader and Senate Minority Leader are also opposed to the plan. Still, Republicans have majority control of both chambers, leaving people such as Horton optimistic about the future.
"There are going to be people who kick and scream and throw a fit about it because they want to protect their little kingdoms, but ultimately we're going to get this done," Horton tells AFN. "And we're going to get this done because it's what's right for Arkansas – and it's what's right for Arkansas kids."