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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Wrong wrapped with right

by John Brummett | January 15, 2023 at 1:43 a.m.

New Gov. Sarah Sanders said several wrong things last week. Even when she said something right, it was wrapped in contradiction. Right-wing grandstanding tends to drag down substance and merit.

The best thing she said--in fact, the only good thing she said in those hyped executive orders that looked like something important but weren't really--was that we must get obsessed on producing better reading skills in our third-graders to the point of expanding accessibility to pre-kindergarten education.

Amen, governor. Bless you. You released your inner progressivism. Your daddy would do that sometimes, too.

I couldn't help but think about the liberal editorial writer who once said to me about early childhood education: "Hell, I'm liberal. I want government to get these kids away from their incompetent parents as soon as possible."

Sarah would no doubt recoil at that brutal phrasing, even as she's saying much the same thing by stressing that, if we want Arkansas kids to be reading at third-grade level when in the third grade, we must snatch them from some of these parents and lather some collectivist big-government services on them when they're 3 or 4 or maybe even younger.

She professes to be a "bold conservative" even as she proposes the state take greater charge over parents with toddlers. Sanders says we must inject the state between these babies and their parents if the babies are going to stand a chance of having basic skills, thus of amounting to something.

But then she says in her ballyhooed school-choice pronouncement that we must undercut traditional public education and instead turn to "parental empowerment" so that parents can do what they choose with their kids after they get a little older, even to the point of sending state money to parents to keep at home the same child Sarah wanted to snatch out of that home at 3 or 4.

I guess you could reconcile that by saying she wants only to expand opportunity to pre-K, not mandate it, and that parents would have the choice to pick a pre-K, not to be bound to one geographically. Or maybe she could say that, after kids can read, parents become competent.

Either way, it doesn't change the essential contradiction that she's asserting that parents--or at least a lot of them--are to be circumvented at one point and empowered universally at others.

Real reconciliation of the contradiction would be to keep preaching expanded pre-K and start preaching not Walmart-designed private education but a deeper devotion to traditional public education. The consistency would be working for public schools that get better rather than wither, inhabited only by stragglers whose parents are not using their vouchers to get them to other schools, probably because they are the same parents so lacking in an education ethic that we felt we needed to nab their toddlers for pre-K.

Meanwhile, I apparently remain alone in thinking that the operative state Supreme Court precedent in the Lake View case was that our public schools should bestow equitable and adequate educational opportunities on all, not inequitable ones based on eroding some schools and giving more money to others to stimulate competition, meaning winners and losers, not universal equity and adequacy.

And speaking of contradictions: Sarah propounded Thursday that she wants all her education notions consolidated into one bill, from teacher pay to vouchers, from school choice to expanded pre-K. That's a big-government Washington tactic often decried as a partisan trick or trap.

In this case, it would force the pitiable Democratic legislative caucus to vote for school choice if it wants expanded pre-K, and for vouchers unless it wants to be on record opposing teacher raises.

It was bad, Republicans said, when Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi did a tome bill for health care. But now it supposedly is virtuous if this Trumpian creation and Ron DeSantis clone wants to do it on--or to--public education.

You can write a clause for teacher raises into an omnibus bill all you want, but it doesn't spend a single buck for a single raise until, separately, you pass the Public School Fund appropriations bill and then weave that money at session's end into Category A of spending priority in the Revenue Stabilization Act.

Pre-K should be its own bill. Be right on it and vote aye. School choice with vouchers is an entirely separate matter that contradicts in substance the pre-K bill. Be right on it and vote no.

Teacher raises are matters of state money appropriated in the Public School Fund to local school districts, who'll grant the raises. Be right on it and vote aye on the appropriation.

We need to avoid Sarah's big bill. We need to break it out into single-subject bills so that we can better separate the progressive wheat from hypocrisy's chaff.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jb[email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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