Commentary

The ‘education governor’ and the threat to public schools

January 11, 2023 6:30 am

Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd outside the state Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023, after she was sworn in as Arkansas’ 47th governor. In her inaugural address, she pledged changes in the state’s public education system. (Photo by Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ two inauguration day speeches and slew of executive orders she issued contained a lot of references to GOP red-meat issues: from an alleged “crime wave plaguing our cities” to supposedly creeping big government from Washington. 

I’m going to focus on the big one: so-called education reform.

To reform something is to change it with the goal of improving it. The way Sanders and the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly want to improve public education in Arkansas seems to me more like dismantling.

Yes, Sanders promises to “reward our teachers with higher pay” and pledges to sign legislation that expands pre-K, improves literacy and gives students real-world skills. At the same time, her executive order prohibiting “indoctrination” in public schools will strike fear among educators, as it has done in other states, and shows a lack of trust in teachers.

Her pledge to “empower parents with more choices” does not bode well for public schools, which have been the bedrock of education and civic socialization for more than 150 years.

Yes, no child should ever be “trapped in a failing school or sentenced to a lifetime of poverty,” but is giving parents “the right to choose the school that’s best for their child — whether it is public, private or parochial” the best answer to a complex societal issue?

If public schools are such failures, how do they continue to graduate Merit Scholars, prepare children from all backgrounds for life in the “real world,” and deal with the incessant criticism and faux outrage of culture warriors from all sides — and still manage to help young minds develop?

The answer: Despite the constant experimentation from education theorists and meddling from lawmakers, religious zealots and people with no understanding of the importance of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, educators remain committed to helping children succeed, at whatever level they can achieve.

We hear a lot of third-grade reading levels and the lack of achievement in that age cohort. Yes, every effort should be made to improve literacy at that stage. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that holding kids back a year en masse because of low scores is the solution. 

Sanders is right about one thing: the challenges faced by education did not occur overnight and won’t be solved tomorrow. And there’s more standing in the way of progress than either right-wing or left-wing ideologues.

Any attempt to parcel out school funding to parents, whether in the form of individual payments or as block grants to schools, will have to contend with Arkansas’ adequacy formula, the court-ordered solution to the 1992 Lake View lawsuit that wasn’t fully resolved until 2007. Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, was governor when the case wound its way through the state courts.

The ruling in Lake View required the state to increase school funding and develop a more equitable system for sustaining that funding. The result was a formula that legislators must review and adjust every two years.

The question facing Sanders and the Legislature’s rabid school-choice proponents is whether they think they can challenge or alter compliance with the Lake View decision without a defeat in the state Supreme Court.

A lot can happen between the voicing of a vision and the crafting of legislation, even with a supermajority of members of the same party. The beauty of our representative form of government is that people with opposing views will get their say and try to influence the final product.

Let’s hope everyone keeps an open mind and won’t forget who’ll bear burden of any laws — children and their teachers.

 

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

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