Gov. Sanders Re-Emphasizes Ed and Public Safety in State of the State Address

The governor’s speech marked the beginning of Arkansas Legislature’s fiscal session.

Members of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ family attend her “State of the State” speech in the Arkansas House chamber on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. From left, her mother, Janet Huckabee; son George Sanders; her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee; son Huck; daughter Scarlett; and husband Bryan Sanders. (Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

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Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders used Wednesday’s “State of the State” address to tout her ongoing policy priorities, primarily education and law enforcement, and urge state lawmakers to pass her proposed state budget.

“Send me a budget that funds critical services for Arkansans while slowing the growth of government and I will sign it,” Sanders told members of the House and Senate during a joint session on the first day of the state’s eighth fiscal session.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders highlighted key areas of her proposed fiscal 2025 budget before a joint session of the Arkansas Legislature as it begin its 2024 fiscal session on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Sonny Albarado/Arkansas Advocate)

The $6.3 billion general revenue budget proposal includes a significantly smaller spending increase — $109 million, or 1.76% — compared to previous fiscal years’ annual 3% hikes.

Sanders reiterated that the proposal fulfills her promise to “slow the out-of-control growth of government.”

“Arkansas had deep, entrenched problems when I took office,” she said. “We weren’t going to solve them with the same failed policies that got us here in the first place, so we charted a new course last year.”

She listed as accomplishments several policies enacted so far in her term, including two laws cutting income taxes, plans to open a new 3,000-bed prison, an executive order banning certain gender-neutral terms in government documents and a social media age verification law, which has been temporarily blocked in court.

Sanders also emphasized her dedication to funding and empowering law enforcement and said her budget proposal includes $3.8 million that would “replenish” the ranks of the Arkansas State Police. She also said she wants to add 100 new officers to the force.

“There are people outside this chamber — and even a few inside — who want to distract us from these common-sense reforms,” Sanders said. “I beg of you: do not let them.”

Education policy

After prioritizing education during her first year in office, Sanders praised the success of the state’s new school voucher program.

New participant applications opened April 1, and Sanders said more than 1,800 applications were submitted on the first day. About a quarter of new Educational Freedom Account program applicants are children of active military duty personnel and veterans, she said. The latter group is newly eligible for the program, which is being phased in over three years.

“Educational freedom is the least that we can do for those who put everything on the line for our freedom,” Sanders said. “This time next year, we will have universal education freedom for the first time in Arkansas history.”

The EFA program is a provision of the LEARNS Act, an expansive education law backed by Sanders that has made several changes to the state’s education system since its passage last year.

The governor’s proposed budget includes $100 million to support LEARNS initiatives. A proposed $65.8 million spending increase for the EFA program accounts for roughly 60% of the budget proposal’s overall increase.

The voucher program provides state funding for allowable education expenses, such as private school tuition. More than 5,400 students and 100 schools participated in the program’s first year. Eligibility criteria is being expanded each year until the program is open to all Arkansas students in the 2025-2026 academic year.

“Before this year, Arkansas families had no choice where to send their kids to school,” Sanders said. “LEARNS expanded education freedom to more than 5,000 students in just one year. Fifty percent of those students have learning disabilities.”

The Arkansas Legislature passed limited school choice legislation prior to the LEARNS Act. The Public School Choice Act of 2015 allows students to transfer to a nonresident district, while the Opportunity School Choice Act permits students in a school with an “F”-rating or in need of Level 5 Intensive support from the state to transfer to another public school.

The Legislature in 2015 also created the Succeed Scholarship Program, which provided private school tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families. The program has been absorbed into the EFA program.

In addition to the voucher program, the LEARNS Act also raises the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and prohibits “indoctrination” in Arkansas schools. Sanders signed an executive order with similar phrasing regarding indoctrination on her first day in office.

The governor said Wednesday that she was proud to have enacted the policy for the sake of “our children’s future.”

Three Little Rock Central High students, their parents and the school’s AP African American Studies teacher sued the “indoctrination” clause in federal court last month, saying it’s “unworkably vague and oppressive, and it discriminates on the basis of race.”

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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