By Douglas Carswell
Last week I was in Little Rock, Arkansas to learn about something called the LEARNS Act. The brainchild of Arkansas 47th governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, this bold new approach to education across the river is drawing a lot of national attention.
Under Arkansas’ LEARNS Act, every child is allowed an Education Freedom Account. The state will then pay into that account 90 percent of the prior year’s average per pupil spending. To give you an idea, that could be about $10,000 per year.
Mom and Dad in Arkansas will then be able to allocate that money to pay for their child’s tuition, school fees, school supplies and even school transportation costs. Moreover, the parents can chose to spend that money in a public school, or a private school, or even through home-schooling.
Listening to some of the key architects of Arkansas’ LEARNS Act, I discovered that there is a lot more to it than school choice. The new law puts great emphasis on improving standards in literacy and math.
Indeed, one lawmaker I was talking with explained how Arkansas has intentionally copied Mississippi, with an insistence on teaching kids to read using phonics. Clearly Mississippi’s focus on phonics has not gone unnoticed in Little Rock. The LEARNS Act also has an ambitious plan to improve math performance, too.
Looking at some of the detail of the LEARNS Act, Arkansas seems to have followed Mississippi’s lead in combating Critical Race theory, too. Under the LEARNS Act, teachers will not be required to attend training on this divisive ideology. The Department of Education’s material will be reviewed to ensure it does not conflict with the idea of equal protection under the law.
As Mississippi did recently, Arkansas’ LEARNS Act gives teachers a substantial pay raise. From 2025, the minimum teacher salary will be $50,000 a year. Interestingly Arkansas has also implemented a merit-based teacher pay scheme. Teachers across the river can now earn up to $10,000 a year bonuses.
Under the LEARNS Act, school district superintendents in Arkansas are now required to have performance targets tied to student achievement. The days of ignoring poor performance in remote school board districts are over.
While Arkansas has clearly learned somethings off Mississippi, there are things that Mississippi could learn from our friends in Little Rock.
Arkansas and Mississippi share more than just a river. Both states are of similar size and population. Each state has a Delta, and neither state has a particularly large urban area. If education freedom works in Arkansas, it will become much harder to keep resisting it over here.
The most inspiring thing about my visit to the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock was not perhaps getting to see the bust of President Clinton (curiously someone had placed it behind the railings, making it look like Bill was behind bars). What was most inspiring was having the chance to see Governor Sanders.
She is so full of energy and enthusiasm. When she talks about the need for change, she makes an overwhelming moral case. Indeed, I was reminded of another strong, principled conservative leader I once knew called Margaret Thatcher. Both of them have a steely determination, coupled with principled beliefs. The 47th Governor of Arkansas is going to go far.
My visit to Little Rock, happened to coincide with Governor Sanders announcement of plans to dramatically reduce the state income tax. When it comes to income tax reduction, Arkansas is doing what Mississippi has done already, which is wonderful to see. It is great to see good ideas moving both ways between our two states.
Douglas Carswell is the President and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.