Standing in his new state office 50 years ago, I envision Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller full of hope and optimism. He had chosen Arkansas as his home over a decade before when a short visit turned into a love affair.
He had a new home, new responsibilities and, now, a new role in public service. He is hopeful, passionate and committed to change. Most importantly, he is convinced that when you are committed to your state, you always work harder to achieve something more.
Gov. Rockefeller saw Arkansas as a state full of promise and hard-working people. As chairman of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, he made a difference to the state by bringing in industrial and economic development. He remained strongly committed to developing an excellent education system, convinced that high standards were needed so Arkansas students could compete with anyone. He invested his own resources and rallied other state and national leaders to co-invest in the causes because he knew public support and pride were driven by personal investment.
Although the Governor dramatically moved our state forward in employment and education, today 70% of jobs in Arkansas require a high school diploma or less. Why do we have so few high-skilled jobs? Our state has one of the highest college remediation rates in the U.S., and 70% of our third graders are unable to read at grade level. Simply put, we are failing our students.
Like Gov. Rockefeller, I know that past data does not determine our future and fuels our determination for improvement. Gov. Rockefeller said in his first inauguration speech 50 years ago, “We shall no longer be content merely to exalt in our potential or measure our progress in comparison with our past.” We should expect more for Arkansas.
Gov. Rockefeller would agree past economic challenges should not determine the wages Arkansans earn now. Neither should past academic performance hinder the quality of education we provide our children today. We must assert that Arkansas is no place for poverty and do all we can to make our shared vision of prosperity a reality for all residents in our state. We must bring education, community and business leaders together to provide students the education they need – before and after high school – to build a stronger economy.
At the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, we have launched Expect More Arkansas to answer one important question: “How can we make sure tomorrow’s jobs are better than today’s?”
To answer that question, we talked to educators, community leaders and employers across Arkansas to learn how they are providing Arkansans the training and education needed to obtain high-skilled jobs that pay family-supporting wages. We learned many Arkansans lack the skills employers need. That is why we have partnered with communities committed to doing what works to increase the number of Arkansans with degrees and certificates so we can bring more higher paying jobs to our state.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson also expects more and is doing more. He has helped provide students the right education to pull our state into the information economy. Based on feedback from employers, our governor issued a mandate to make Arkansas the first state to require all high school students to participate in computer coding classes. He has also collaborated with education, community and business leaders to make Arkansas one of only three others in the country to provide 100% broadband access in public schools.
It’s likely our current governor is familiar with what Gov. Rockefeller said about education several years ago, “Until we can provide quality education for all, whatever else we build cannot be fully meaningful.”
We, too, had Gov. Rockefeller’s wise words in mind when we worked with others to create ForwARd Arkansas. ForwARd is a statewide movement in education established through a partnership between the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Arkansas Department of Education, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. ForwARd shares its vision with thousands of Arkansans who believe every student should graduate from high school prepared to do their part to build a stronger economy for Arkansas.
Gov. Rockefeller’s legacy shows us the domino effect that happens when we prepare more Arkansans to succeed. If more students read at grade level by the end of third grade, they are more likely to graduate high school ready to continue learning, either on the job or in college, and secure high-skilled jobs that provide family-supporting wages. If adults have opportunities to continue their education and earn the degrees and certificates employers need them to have, we will be able to expand our state’s economy.
It all starts with bringing education, community and business leaders together to figure out how to ensure that more Arkansans succeed–both in post-secondary and K-12 classrooms–so we can expect more, do more and achieve more for Arkansas.
Editor’s note: Cory Anderson is executive vice president at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. He is responsible for the cultivation of local and national partners, special initiatives and strategy development. The opinions expressed are those of the author.