ARKANSAS, (KNWA/KFTA) – An omnibus education bill, SB294, has passed the state Senate and is headed to the House. The proposal is 144 pages long and addresses multiple topics.
Rachell Cockrell, an 11th-grade English teacher at Har-Ber High School, said her main concern with the bill is the Education Freedom Account Fund, which acts as a voucher system. According to Cockrel, any program that reallocates funds intended for public schools and puts them in the private sector is dangerous.
State Senator Bart Hester is a sponsor of the bill. He said if a child decided to go to a private school, 85% of the funds issued to the public school would transfer with the student, 5% would go towards managing those funds and 10% would go back to the state.
Cockrell said around 90% of Arkansas students go to public schools, and instead of instituting a school voucher program, she believes the state should be beefing up public schools.
“There is this underlying assumption that private schools are better. When we take public funding and give it to private schools, then we support that assumption; We create a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures that public schools continue to be underfunded,” Cockrell said. “Therefore, they underperform, and it makes private schools look like the better option every time.”
Hester and other co-sponsors of the bill believe the Education Freedom Account Fund will greatly expand and benefit school choice for students and their families.
“The reality is if you’re doing an excellent job at your public school, why would somebody choose something different? If you’re doing an excellent job and they choose something different, shouldn’t we allow that?” Hester said.
One of the biggest benefits of the bill, according to Hester, is an increase in teacher pay. The minimum starting salary for teachers in Arkansas would go from $36,000 to $50,000. This will bring Arkansas from 48th to 4th in the nation when it comes to teacher pay. He said another benefit is focusing heavily on reading advancement for students. According to Hester, only one-third of students read at grade level.
The 144-page bill was filed Monday, and it has already passed a Senate Education Committee and the Senate. Cockrell said it should have taken more time for legislators to take all the information in and make a decision.
“I’m an English teacher, and if my students are any indication, we need more than a couple of days to read and comprehend 144-page document, especially one that’s so legal,” Cockrell said.
Lawmakers should listen to teachers, according to Cockrell. She said teachers have the expertise and training in the field and know what’s needed. If the bill passes, even though she’ll be upset, Cockrell will continue doing what she loves.
“I’m going to teach them when I’m supposed to teach them, what they need to know, and that’s not going to change no matter what the legislation throws down,” Cockrell said.
Alma superintendent, Bryan Duffie, said there are many good things in the bill that will benefit schools and families. However, he thinks some items need more clarity.
Another big challenge will be deciding definitions and rules in the rulemaking process, according to Duffie. He said this is huge reform, which can be difficult for people, but the bottom line is that school will continue and educators will be there to help.
“We’re going to continue to do good things for kids and the teachers will continue to work hard for kids. Whatever changes we need to implement, that’s what we’re going to do,” Duffie said.