The education reform group Arkansas Learns is running a campaign during this year’s school elections – not to elect a candidate, but to encourage people to vote.
“We’re not targeting individual candidates, individual races,” said the group’s president and CEO, Gary Newton. “We’re simply saying that this is an important election to families, communities and the state as a whole, so let’s act like it. … As long as people are electing those that govern our largest local government entities with in some cases just tens of voters, not hundreds of voters, we don’t think that’s good government.”
Early voting for school elections, held this year on Sept. 17, began Tuesday. The elections typically produce very low turnout. For example, in 2011, Steve Percival, a school board member in Fayetteville, was elected 115-113 in a zone with 8,000 voters despite the fact that the district had recently held two high-profile millage elections to raise money to build a new high school.
Arkansas Learns’ campaign includes television ads in the Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro markets that will begin running mostly on television news shows starting Wednesday, Sept. 11. The ads feature the tagline, “We vote, students win.” The ad can be viewed at Arkansas Learns’ website, www.arkansaslearns.org.
Radio ads began running earlier this week, and the campaign is using print ads and social media. The campaign also is making targeted recorded telephone calls in various markets encouraging people to vote. Newton said Arkansas Learns has reached out to community leaders in various cities. He said he is unaware if there has ever been a get-out-the-vote campaign for Arkansas school elections.
In addition to heading Arkansas Learns, Newton serves as director of the Arkansas Education Reform Foundation, which supports increased school choice options and is supported by some of the state’s business leaders. Its founders include Jim Walton, Steve Stephens, Claiborne Deming of Murphy Oil, and Walter Hussman, owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Unlike many elected officials, Arkansas school board members are not paid for their service, and their campaigns rarely spend much money or attract much media attention. Newton said many Arkansans are not aware when school elections occur.
Arkansas Learns was among several groups that proposed moving school election dates to the November elections in this year’s legislative session, but that effort failed.
“Even those that were opposed to changing the date said we just need to get more people to vote,” Newton said. “So we chose, rather than licking our wounds, we chose to try to do just that.”