When Florida’s DeSantis Coughs, Arkansas’s Sanders Sneezes

COVID-19 Education Elections Future Impunity Legislation Politics

            Little Rock       Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis in a Twitter technical meltdown has finally announced his bid for the Republican nomination for president.  The kowtowing Republican supermajority in the Florida legislature has gone out of their way to pass wild and wooly legislation to establish his ultra-conservative bonafides.  Less well known nationally has been the “me-too” kneejerk efforts by Arkansas’ new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and her rubber stamp Republican legislature to slavishly follow Florida’s lead and try to meet their ante and up it one farther to the right.

Looking at the lowlights of the 2023 Arkansas session showcases the way Sanders is trying to position herself as the Joan of Arc of the far right in lockstep to DeSantis:

  • Teachers are banned from calling students by their preferred pronouns unless the parent approves of the pronoun.
  • Arkansas can’t invest in publicly-held companies engaged in ESG (environmental, social and governance) actions.
  • Gov. Sanders signed into law legislation that would allow for an anti-abortion monument to be placed at the state Capitol.
  • A new act would charge someone with a misdemeanor for refusing to or making an attempt to leave, if they are in the bathroom of the opposite sex while a child is present,
  • Act 317 doesn’t allow individuals into the restroom that aligns with their gender identity
  • Act 274 allows healthcare professionals to be sued for medical practice for gender-affirming procedures.
  • A bill would allow for books to be challenged in public libraries, with library officials having the option to appeal the challenge to the local and city government.
  • Act 131 classifies drag performances as “adult-oriented business.” The bill bans drag shows from being performed on public property.
  • HB1615 would allow for businesses whose religious exercise was “burdened” to sue the state. The bill has passed the House, but has not been considered in the Senate. Last year, Arkansas voters in 2022 rejected the Government Burden of Free Exercise of Religion Amendment, which was similar to the language in HB1615.

DeSantis coughs, and then Sanders sneezes, while the legislatures in both states yell, Gesundheit!

If all of that isn’t enough, the signature legislation promoted and passed by Sanders was the deceptively titled LEARN Act, designed to destroy public schools.  Its provisions, which opponents correctly labeled as a direct subsidy to parents with children in private schools, include the following:

….a starting teacher pay set at $50,000, the creation of a voucher program (called “education freedom accounts”) that could be used to pay for tuition at a private school, twelve weeks of maternity leave for teachers, bonuses for select teachers, programs to increase literacy, the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, and the requirement that poorly performing public school districts partner with a charter school.

Of course, part of the LEARN package includes a ban on any teaching of critical race theory and adding insult to injury they also reallocated federal Covid relief money to help pay for this package.  A former Little Rock superintendent noted that

“…voucher money would go to students already in private schools, which would drain resources from public schools: “There are well over 10,000 students in Central Arkansas in private schools. That’s some $64 million in new spending a year in Pulaski County alone.”

Some districts and parent groups have sued on the basis of the state constitution’s guarantees for public education.  Other opponents are trying to put a measure on the ballot to repeal the LEARN Act, not that it matters.  Some of the bills passed by Sanders and her legislative posse were already rejected overwhelmingly in statewide initiatives by Arkansans.

Likely in the next session, Arkansas will simply ask to be annexed to Florida, since their lead is where Sanders and her legislature want to follow.