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NAACP panel voice concerns, questions about LEARNS Act

NWA NAACP President Coby Davis, former gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones, Representative Denise Garner and Springdale superintendent Jared Cleveland at the Fayetteville Public Library in August.
D. Caruth
NWA NAACP President Coby Davis, former gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones, Representative Denise Garner and Springdale superintendent Jared Cleveland at the Fayetteville Public Library in August.

Last Thursday evening an audience of around 80 people filed into the Fayetteville Public Library event center as State Representative Denise Garner and former gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones took the stage. The two joined moderator, and Springdale Schools Superintendent, Jared Cleveland for a discussion of Arkansas's new education bill:The LEARNS Act– which stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The panel was hosted by the Northwest Arkansas branch of the NAACP and is the first in what the group hopes will be a series of discussions to help people better understand the sweeping 145-page omnibus bill, which was signed into law in March. Dr. Coby Davis is President of the NWA NAACP and said once the bill became law, the group wanted to get the most pertinent information about it in front of community members.

“There’s a lot of pieces they don’t know anything about.,” he said. “And so we wanted a conversation to try to answer some of those questions and hopefully shed some light.”

With Garner - the Democratic state representative for District 20 - and Jones, who lost the 2022 governor's race to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as the only panelists, the discussion was skewed to the Democrat's perspective. However, Coby Davis said the NAACP did reach out to several Republicans to join but never received confirmation.

The hour-long question and answer session touched on a range of topics that the LEARNS Act will impact from literacy rates to teacher pay and one of the most controversial parts of the bill so far: school vouchers.

"I’m probably okay with just about anybody educating your children, if there’s accountability and if there’s transparency,” Denise Garner said. “The big issue is with utilizing public funds, we’re not only accountable to the children and to the parents, but we’re also accountable to the community... and the taxpayer.”

Garner voted against the LEARNS Act when it came before the House in March but said she does believe some of the ideas in the legislation could improve Arkansas' education system, specifically around investing in early childhood education.

During the discussion, Jones agreed that some aspects - like a focus on improved literacy rates and hiring literacy coaches - were good but said he believes there are some elements of the bill that have not been properly addressed.

"The dollars that go with a student: If they leave private school and go back to public school, how do you get the money back to the public school?" Jones asked.

He also pointed to a lack of public input in the drafting of this bill as a concern he has heard from people across the state.

"They haven’t felt engaged in the process," he said. “They felt like it was decided in a smoke-filled room with three people and it was thrust upon them.”

Julie Ramsey, an elementary school teacher in Fayetteville, said that she wants more transparency for state officials on how the new law will impact teachers and students in the classroom.

"I still feel like there are so many things about it that I need to know," she said. “I worry about my students and am not sure how it’s going to affect them, and not sure how it’s going to affect teachers.”

Monique Jones is vice president of the NWA NAACP and the parent of a Fayetteville student. She said her school has not passed information along to parents on how this law will impact them or on what options they have.

“And I have a child with disabilities,” she said. “So that definitely was one of the high level things that I wanted to hear discussed tonight.”

And this confusion is something Davis said he has heard from a lot of people - it's also what made the NAACP want to have the discussion.

"I think there’s a lot of people who were not in the room tonight who are highly impacted by what this law has decided," he said. “And they just don’t even know what’s in it.”

So far, Garner said the LEARNs Act has already had some unintended consequences on education in Arkansas. She said she has heard from several teachers who have decided to leave the profession because of this new law.

Julie Ramsey said she has seen the same at her school and believes this new bill has placed unreasonable pressure on teachers.

"I think a lot of teachers feel like their plate was full already and they keep heaping on more and more, without any answers,” she said.

While the guidelines for the LEARNS Act are still being ironed out, Davis said people can expect to see more panel discussions around the education law in the lead up to the 2024 elections.

Garner said now is the time for people to ask questions and voice their concerns to Governor Sanders about how this bill is impacting them.

“She’s going to listen to voters more than to a democrat right now,” she said. “So unless somebody tells us that something is really working well, then we don’t know to spend more energy in that… and if we don't know that it is not working, then we don’t know to try and fix it.”

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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