Education advocates: Senate bill would undermine public education

The sweeping Arkansas education bill SB294 will fundamentally undermine public education through costs of its voucher scheme and lacks funding for evidence-based programs, advocacy groups explained Monday. Leaders from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Citizens First Congress, Arkansas Education Association, Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families and Disability Rights Arkansas all gathered for a joint press conference Monday afternoon to discuss the details of SB294,known at the LEARNS Act. “This bill is really about privatizing public schools through a massive expansion of charter schools and the creation of a universal voucher program,” said Bill Kopsky, Executive Director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which has worked on public education reform since the ‘60s. “And we have no idea of the long-term costs. ”Their main ask of legislators is to slow down. Last week, Arkansas witnessed this 144-page omnibus education bill be filed, passthrough committee and pass in the Senate Chamber, all in less than 72 hours.SB294 is scheduled to be heard at 9 a.m. tomorrow, Feb. 28, by the House Edu-cation Committee in Room A, MAC. “Educators will continue to call on legislators to slow down and create a process that is inclusive and deliberate, to ensure that a quality education is a given for every family, in every neighborhood,” said Carol Fleming, President of Arkansas Education Association. The unlimited voucher program this bill would create will undoubtedly drain resources away from public schools over time and will give public dollars to private schools and homeschool families without a substantial amount of accountability or defined standards, said Oliva Gardner, Education Policy Director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “It will create a tiered system of education in our state with those who have access to private schools on one side and on the other, those who either cannot afford it – even with the education freedom account funds – who have children with disabilities, or who live in rural areas where private schools are not an option,” Gardner said. Studies show that vouchers may do more harm than good. The Brookings Institution looked at voucher programs in four states and found that “students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. ”As of 2019, there were over 63,000 (13.4%) students with a disability receiving special education services in the state – an18% increase since 2013.Yet SB294 provides no increased protections or funding for those receiving or who need special education services, said Tom Masseau, Executive Director of Disability Rights Arkansas. “There are no details as to the impact this reform would have on students with disabilities, and we are not aware of any conversations with stakeholders in the disability com-munity,” Masseau said. “Once again, the disability community’s needs are ignored. We want a state where all are welcome and have the same opportunities not creating a state of class systems. ”This bill also does very little to address the crisis facing Arkansas in early education, advocates said. There is no money for in-creasing access and afford-ability to Pre-K and infant and toddler care for families. If this bill is passed, Arkansas runs the risk of be-coming a training ground for new teachers who come for the starting salary and then leave for neighboring states that pay experienced teachers more, Fleming said. Furthermore, the bill does nothing to address the shortage of all the other people who make our schools work–classroom support staff, school nutrition workers, nurses, social workers, and bus drivers.

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