NWA EDITORIAL | Will Arkansas’ governor be an advocate for public schools?

Public schools are at the heart of it

Public school educators in Arkansas could understandably feel a little beat up as Gov. Sarah Sanders pursued her reforms of Arkansas education in the state Legislature.

To arrive at the absolute necessity for her 145-page Arkansas LEARNS legislation, Sanders and her legion of Republican supporters in the House and Senate delivered a pitch that goes down like castor oil (look it up, kids) among those who rely on and work within public schools. The pitch sounded something like this: Arkansas' public education is a failure.

What's necessary for that to change, according to Sanders, was public funding to bolster the private education opportunities in Arkansas. Parental choice, she calls it. And it indeed gives parents the option to withdraw nearly $7,000 a year from taxpayer support for public education and spend it how they see fit -- on homeschooling and via vouchers to cover all or some of private school tuition if and when their student is accepted to a private institution.

There is, of course, more to it. Big pay increases for starting public school teachers. Reductions to the barriers that made it more likely an ineffective public school teacher would remain in place. Incentive pay for high performers. Creation of a dual diploma system to prepare students for workforce jobs. Funding for reading coaches. Grants of $500 for tutors for academically struggling kids through third grade.

For some working in or supporting public education, Sanders has come across as antagonistic. The campaign for her signature bill needed a villain, it seemed, and so local educators became indoctrinators of leftist ideologies. They became teachers of race-based theories of history that run counter to traditional Arkansas sensibilities. Granted, Sanders didn't identify these educators by name -- likely because she didn't have any individuals in mind -- but swiped with a brush large enough that it splashed a little criticism on everyone working in public schools to teach every student who darkens the doorway.

Our guess -- and it is by necessity a guess -- is that Sanders views herself as an advocate for the state's students and, since the vast majority of them are taught in public schools, believes it must be understood that she supports public education even as she's cast some portion of those educators as the villains.

The question, now that Sanders can check off passage of Arkansas LEARNS, is whether Arkansas will have a governor who recognizes the massive role of public schools in delivering education and embraces her role in creating an atmosphere in which knowledge is valued and quality educators are respected.

Arkansas needs a governor who cares passionately for its public schools. The state's academic reputation will not improve unless public schools do.

Our governor cannot -- or at least, should not -- be content to spend the next four years declaring that everyone in education who disagrees with her is an operative of "the left" deserving to be crushed. It makes for some eye-grabbing tweets but doesn't reflect the leadership necessary to get Arkansas where Sanders says she would like to take it -- to a stronger education system.

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