Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed Christian school leaders from around the state Monday, answering questions about the Arkansas LEARNS Act, which she signed into law last year.
The Summit was hosted by the Herzog Foundation, which publishes The Lion, and was attended by dozens of Christian school leaders, as well as other Christian education stakeholders.
Sanders explained how she developed the revolutionary school choice initiative and touted the partnerships that helped garner wide support for the bill.
“I knew it was something that the people who voted for me – they were demanding it,” the governor said. “We talked about this being the first and biggest priority that I had coming in as governor – to really flip our education system on its head.”
Describing herself as an “unapologetic believer,” Sanders discussed her own Christian faith, her commitment to school choice and the need to strengthen both public and private education sectors to achieve the best results for students.
“Whatever a family needs to meet the demands of their student – that’s where we are in modern day education,” Sanders told the crowd. “We need to do a better job of helping to make sure every student has a pathway to success.”
“LEARNS is not anti-public school,” Sanders emphasized. “It was the largest investment that we’ve made as a state into our public schools in decades. We also want to see our public schools succeed and do well.
“Competition breeds excellence, and education should be no different. By building up both sectors, we expect to see a lot more success across the board. We want to see every sector do well.”
A key component of LEARNS was the creation of the Educational Freedom Account, which can be used by eligible families to cover private school tuition, fees, uniforms and other required expenses. Sanders said about 6,000 students are currently enrolled in education freedom accounts.
“For many families, the public school is going to be the first and best choice,” Sanders told the audience. “But if it isn’t, we want them to have the option to figure out where and how their child can best be educated, and that means opening up options for charter schools, private school and even home school.”
During a question and answer time, Brad Jones, superintendent of Fayetteville Christian School, asked about protections to ensure Christian schools can stay true to their beliefs while accepting public funds.
“I think that’s why it’s important for people like yourself to engage and to continue to build those coalitions of support and make sure like-minded people are representing you in the Legislature,” Sanders replied.
“We are going to do everything we can to put some of those safety nets and things in place,” Sanders added. “The good news is there is a vast amount of support for what we’re doing. I wouldn’t be sitting here if there wasn’t. So I feel like we’re in a good place and, again, I’m certainly going to fight for those protections over the course of the next seven years and hope that somebody that comes behind me will carry on with those same priorities.”
Sanders also took a question from a school leader on how Christian schools should demonstrate accountability to their students, parents and the state.
“One of the biggest places we want to focus on is student growth and achievement,” answered Sanders. “So, making sure there is some sort of accountability and some sort of mechanism to measure for that. That growth piece is really critical – making sure we aren’t just measuring ‘Did they pass or fail?’ but ‘How much progress did they make?’”
Sanders’ meeting with school leaders came after she signed a proclamation last week declaring Jan. 21-27 as Arkansas Parental Choice Week, a nod to the nationwide recognition of School Choice Week.