Northwest lawmakers expect education policy changes as 2023 legislative session looms

Education changes will top the Legislature’s agenda when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, a prospect most Northwest Arkansas lawmakers interviewed looked forward to.

Exactly what changes to education will be considered remain to be seen, lawmakers say. Senators and representatives interviewed say they want to see what Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders will propose.

“We will have a new governor with new cabinet members and a largely new Legislature,” said Sen.-elect Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. Dotson is moving to the Senate from the House. He is a longtime proponent of tax-free education accounts and other measures to allow parents more ability to select which schools their children attend.

He is sure education is in for changes, but there is no consensus yet on exactly what those changes will be.

“I’m optimistic for things I’ve been pushing for, the type of reforms we’ve seen in Arizona and West Virginia,” he said.

Arizona passed a law in July expanding educational savings accounts. The law now allows parents to choose where to spend public money allocated to their children. It passed with bipartisan support.

Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, was less enthused in his education policy prediction.

“It’s going to be an all-out blitzkrieg on public education,” Whitaker said. He referred directly to Sanders’ choice, announced Thursday, of Jacob Oliva of the Florida Department of Education as the state’s new education secretary, replacing current Education Secretary Johnny Key.

“If you think Johnny Key is too liberal and that you need to replace him with a DeSantis guy, people have to worry about public education,” Whitaker said, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Northwest Arkansans want more control over their children’s education and so does the rest of Arkansas, other Northwest Arkansas lawmakers said. Those lawmakers include Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, the incoming president of the Senate.

The first priority on Hester’s list of what the state needs is a new prison “to continue to have space for repeat violent offenders and release pressure on county jails,” he said.

The next urgent need is an “education package that focuses on parental empowerment through choice,” he said in an email. After that, the Legislature needs to look at cutting the state income tax “to continue moving Arkansas closer to 0% to encourage job creators to locate in Arkansas.”

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said she also favors lowering taxes, but criminal justice reform and education changes will come first.

“We have to see what those will cost first before we can pass tax cuts,” she said.

Whatever form education changes or anything take in the Legislature, Northwest Arkansas’ delegation will have a huge part in shaping it, Lundstrum said.

“The corner caucus is massive,” she said, referring to the nickname for the state’s Northwest corner legislators.

Eighteen of the 100 representatives in the state House live in either Benton or Washington county, state records show. Another factor helping the northwest delegation will hopefully be a good working relationship between their members in the House and the Senate, she said. Three of the delegation’s six senators were elected to that chamber from the House in 2022. Another two are also former House members. They all know each other and have worked together, she said.

“I think there’s going to be a good team spirit between the House and the Senate,” she said.

Whitaker and Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said they hope the Legislature will consider easing the state’s strict provisions on abortions. For instance, they said, current law makes no exception for rape or incest.

“The very least we need to do is eliminate some of the uncertainty on what doctors can and cannot do to protect the life of the mother,” Leding said.

Under current law, he said, doctors cannot perform an abortion unless the mother’s life is in immediate peril. This would not cover, for instance, a woman who receives a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy whose treatment for cancer would cause her to miscarry.

Leding noted this will be the first session since anti-covid precautions were dropped. Those restrictions curtailed public hearings on issues at the Capitol during the last legislative session and caused both isolation and strain in the Legislature.

“I’m hoping for a lot more people speaking in public hearings at the Capitol,” he said.

None of the lawmakers interviewed expected the Northwest’s interests to suffer since a Northwest Arkansan, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Rogers, is leaving office. Sanders is closely attuned to the majority opinion in the region and even if she wasn’t, she has a large Northwestern delegation to deal with, they said.

  photo  The state Capitol building in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
  photo  220147 Robin Lundstrum 2-22-2022
  photo  220185 David Whitaker, D, – HD 22 ? central Washington. Farmington and western Fayetteville.
  photo  Jim Dotson

The Northwest Arkansas delegation

Lawmakers from Benton or Washington counties:


Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, Senate president

Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, Senate minority leader

Sen.-elect Josh Bryant, R-Rogers

Sen.-elect Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville

Sen.-elect Clint Penzo, R-Springdale

Sen.-elect Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs


Rep. Jon Carr, R-Rogers

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville

Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville

Rep. Delia Haak, R-Gentry

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs

Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville

Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-Cave Springs

Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville

Rep.-elect Rebecca Burkes, R-Springdale

Rep.-elect Hope Duke, R-Gravette

Rep.-elect DeAnna Hodges, R-Springdale

Rep.-elect Grant Hodges, R-Centerton

Rep.-elect Mindy McAlindon, R-Centerton

Rep-elect Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers

Rep.-elect Kendra Moore, R-Lincoln

Rep.-elect Chad Puryear, R-Hindsville

Rep.-elect Scott Richardson, R-Bentonville

Rep.-elect Steve Unger, R-Springdale


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