Three of the four gubernatorial hopefuls in the Democratic Party of Arkansas met for an education town hall Thursday night (Aug. 26) and discussed issues ranging from mask mandates, school openings and closures, and critical race theory.
Dr. Anthony Bland, Dr. Chris Jones, and James “Rus” Russell met for a KATV-Talk Business & Politics town hall on education Thursday and a portion of that discussion aired Sunday (Aug. 29) on statewide TV and radio. Supha Mays, a fourth Democrat running for Arkansas governor in 2022, originally committed to the forum, but a new scheduling conflict caused her to back out.
Bland, Jones and Russell were asked about the surging cases of COVID-19 that are exponentially growing in Arkansas’ schools. Those younger than 12 years old are unable to be vaccinated and the state’s low vaccine rates have led to a widespread uptick in cases.
Last week, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement noted a record-tying 201 Arkansas school districts have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents in those school districts.
Bland said, if he were governor, he’d look at closing the schools today based on trends.
“If it was up to me, if it got to the point that it was going to prevent the safety of our children, I would suggest closing schools until we could be safe,” he said.
Bland said he would have never signed a mask mandate ban law into effect. He also contends that more transparency is needed to make sure COVID cases are properly monitored and reported.
“Developing policies or laws that actually will prevent the health and safety of the people in our state will never be the case with me as governor. I would never have signed a bill to prevent masking, for that was there just to help prevent the spread of COVID,” he said. “If I was governor, I would make sure that our children in those schools were safe, secure, and stayed healthy and strong. And the only way to do that is to make sure that you actually maintain and monitor the levels of COVID. I would not hide what’s going on within our communities or in our schools. If there are students that are catching COVID, I don’t want that to be something that I hide from the public. I want our children to be safe.”
Jones said he would not take the option of closing schools off the table.
“The report that just came out today, as you mentioned, talked about us being in a ‘raging fire’ situation. And in those situations, you really have to do everything you can to protect the most vulnerable,” Jones said. “Now, I do think that there are things that we can do, like masking and increasing our vaccination rate, that will allow us to be in-person. In-person schooling is ideal for most kids; not for all kids, but for most kids. So, I think there are steps that we can take before we get to the point that we have to shut down. But when you look at the numbers, I would certainly not take that off the table.”
Russell sided with Jones’ position.
“It should be on the table, but it shouldn’t be a blanket decision. Just as Arkansas isn’t the same as everywhere else in the nation, different populations, that needs to be an individual choice,” Russell said.
“The core problem of what we saw with the bill that was passed and the law that was put into place is that it stripped away the ability for the local municipalities and local school boards to make that determination based on current scientific data. And you can’t institute a blanket policy when you’ve got individuals to actually deal with. So, we needed something that would still allow that freedom, that flexibility, to react to a raging fire, an evolving situation, especially when you’re dealing with an epidemic or a viral outbreak,” he said. “That may mean that one thing is different from Little Rock than it is from Pine Bluff than it is from Harrison than it is from Ash Flat.”
Critical race theory has become a wedge issue in American politics with Republicans pushing legislation and rhetoric at the national, state and local levels to curtail its teaching. All three Democratic gubernatorial candidates argued the issue isn’t widespread and is a bigger reaction to the uncomfortable teaching of American history.
“I chuckle because it’s a boogeyman that doesn’t exist,” Jones said. “Critical race theory is taught in advanced-level law classes. I have a third-grader. What they’re teaching is the multiplication table. What they’re teaching is how to think critically about the relationships with each other. And the other thing I’ll say is that I am a scientist. And so, when I think about research, it is important to look back at the past and to understand what worked and didn’t work because that knowledge that I learned from the past will help me make better decisions to prepare me for the future,” Jones said.
“And as a Christian, as a person of faith, when I think about my faith, it is grounded because I’ve asked the tough questions of it. And so, if my faith can’t stand up to the tough questions, it’s not a strong faith. I think our society, I think our state can handle the tough questions. It can handle the analysis, and that’s what makes it better. And the last thing I’ll say is my family has been here in the state for over 200 years. There were certainly times in that period that were not good, where the state made bad decisions, and even fast-forward to the Little Rock Central High crisis. We know, the pictures show, that there were things that we did wrong. And the only way that we can fix those for the future is to understand them. But again, specifically, critical race theory, it’s a graduate level course. It’s a boogeyman that folks are creating to divide us when we need to be united,” he added.
“It’s a red herring blowing a dog whistle inside a straw man. It’s blown out of proportion,” said Russell. “You are talking about an upper-division course in law school. But critical race theory as it applies to our everyday lives, I mean, we live it. And it’s one of the things that our language has kind of failed at is differentiating between the dog whistle of racism versus prejudice. Everyone has inherent prejudices. That is a part of human nature. A prejudice is something that you grow and overcome over time. The prejudices is what led to racism as a systemic issue. And that’s what critical race theory examines and looks at to see what we can overcome and what we can better, how we can improve our society to equal the playing field, to level, to improve from our past… You find things where they’re trying to ban the 1619 Project and things like that. That is straight up revisionist history. That may as well be burning books,” he said.
“I agree with my colleagues here,” said Bland. “We never know where we need to go unless we know where we came from. And to hide history should never be a subject to ever be placed on the table. It happened. Deal with it. History happened. Why are you afraid to face history head-on? Just make sure that when you learn history, you don’t make the same mistakes again. We should get to the point that we don’t see anger and frustration when we see color. But I get it, we’re not there yet.”
You can watch the Democratic candidates for governor and the full questions they answered over 90 minutes at the video below.