Last week I wrote a piece about my dad for Arkansas Strong. It was in response to a question I get a lot: What drives you to fight so hard for public education? Interested folks can read the piece at www.arstrong.org.
The gist is that my dad, who grew up in poverty in Franklin County, was given the chance to break that cycle because the generous people of Arkansas chose to use their tax dollars to fund public schools.
And even though public education in Arkansas back then had a long way to go (this was before schools were integrated, and before the Lakeview case established equity as the standard statewide)--and still does--the fact remains that there was a little schoolhouse in the tiny rural community of Cecil, Ark., that accepted him. In spite of his worn-out shoes, patched overalls, and inability to pay a dime. He had access. That made all the difference.
It did not just make a difference for him. For good or ill, the choices we make as a state about how to invest in our children affect them now and also everyone else their lives touch in the future.
In the case of my father, access to education set him on a path to success that changed the trajectory of our whole family. My brother's and my lives were made infinitely better because of it. It still reverberates out through the lives of his seven grandchildren.
There are those who sincerely believe vouchers will expand opportunity for children in poverty like my dad. Closely akin are those like the parents I heard speak in favor of the LEARNS bill because their special needs children were underserved by public schools.
I feel their pain. But these folks have believed a lie. Vouchers for private and homeschools do not serve children in poverty or children with special needs. There are a few outliers--likely the families recruited to show support for the bill who have been given a scholarship--but the vast majority will not be helped by vouchers. That's the sad truth.
There are two reasons. The first is that private schools do not have to accept children with special needs, and most of them don't. The second is that for children in poverty all over this state--one in five Arkansas kids are hungry--there are no private schools they can access, and homeschool is not an option because their parents can't or won't choose that.
It was striking to hear parents of children with special needs advocate for vouchers. They told stories of trying to get what they needed for their children at public schools, but turned elsewhere because the public schools were not able to do what their children needed.
Teachers who love these children and want to serve them came forward and made the same case, only against vouchers--begging instead for those millions of dollars that will go to fund private education, mostly for those affluent enough already to afford it--to be placed into public schools, specifically to fund special education, which is sorely lacking as schools grapple with issues they were never originally designed to address.
No public school wants to fail these families. What became clear is that we all desire the same thing, which is for every kid to be served, regardless of their ZIP code. The pipe dream is that public tax dollars can make this happen outside of a great public school system. This has never been true in any place, although it has been tried. It never will. But our lawmakers promise it anyway.
If lawmakers still believe the lie after being presented with all of the evidence to the contrary--Rep. Denise Garner presented seven peer-reviewed studies when she addressed the House, and there are hundreds more--then they are without excuse.
But I don't really believe they think they are helping our kids. I believe it is about power, and specifically, the governor's power. As Rep. Jim Wooten said, I believe half of them are trying to gain favor with the governor, and the other half are afraid of her.
LEARNS is important to Sarah Sanders because she can use it, along with her executive orders, to fire up support from a base she believes will propel her to more power. In Washington, D.C.
Friends who grew up with her offer personal insight I don't have. And there are family friends like Rex Nelson who know her parents--specifically her father--in ways I never could. I can only read about things they experienced as intimates in Mike Huckabee's circle when he was governor. Firsthand accounts as well as public record offer a not-straight path to what Sarah and her father seem to be about today.
I had coffee with a friend of Sarah's from Central High School who told me, "I do not believe this is who she is at her core. I just can't. She has always been a Republican and committed to the ideals of the party. But she was a good person; not this. Not divisive, mean-spirited, resentful. Not radical. Not big government telling everyone what to do. That's not even Republican."
And Rex Nelson's recent stories on his Southern Fried blog read like Old Testament prophecy. He keeps fidelity to the truth, but his tone is sad. A lamentation. He informs the public of clear and present danger, but the pieces really seem more addressed to Sarah, like letters from a loved one trying to draw out her better angels; a lifesaver flung her way; a desperate hand reaching to pull her back from an abyss.
I don't know what it is like to be so wealthy and so near the seats of world superpower that you can taste it. I am sure the temptation is greater than most of us could withstand.
What I see when I trace the ascent of the Huckabees from his pastorate, then governorship in Arkansas, to a failed presidential bid, subsequent accumulation of wealth and influence as a media personality, and proximity to Trump, is the story of a gifted father and daughter whose talents have and still could offer no small amount of good to the world. But who have instead succumbed to the temptation to be first at any cost, instead of using their gifts to serve the least of these.
In the way Jesus describes over and over in the gospels, their outward ascent reflects inward demise. Like Rex and their other old friends, and for the good of our state, I pray for redemption.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at [email protected].