Governor Sanders’ missed opportunity on education

by Bill Kopsky ([email protected]) 4,513 views 

One of the things that makes Gov. Sarah Sanders’ education proposal so frustrating is that it is such a missed opportunity. To understand the missed opportunity you have to review a little history.

Public education received an incredible gift a little over 20 years ago, during the Gov. Mike Huckabee administration.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, in the Lakeview case, ruled that our system of education was unconstitutionally inadequate and unequal.  What happened next, led by Gov. Huckabee and the Legislature, transformed the Arkansas education system from among the worst and most underfunded in the Nation to among the fastest improving.  

After the Lakeview ruling, Gov. Huckabee and the legislature responded by forming a Blue Ribbon Commission on Education. It had many diverse stakeholders from educators to community and business leaders from all over the state.  It was absolutely nonpartisan and non ideological.  Republicans and Democrats worked together for the common good.  Their goal was to develop a consensus set of recommendations based on evidence and research on how best to improve student opportunities.

Their recommendations transformed the Arkansas education system and led to radical improvements.  It worked because it had all of the stakeholders invested in a consensus around evidence based solutions.  Among their reforms were:

  • Dramatically improving teacher pay;
  • Massive improvements to school curriculum and standards;
  • Creating one of the most accessible pre-k programs for 4 year olds in the nation; and
  • Dramatically improving school facilities around the state.  

What was missing from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations was school privatization because the evidence didn’t support it and the consensus among stakeholders was not there.

Sadly our progress started to slip in the 2010’s when the Legislature: 

  • Lowered standards and approved widespread waivers from them.  
  • Stopped funding the adequacy recommendations to make the state budget smaller to fund tax cuts for the well-to-do.  
  • Started privatizing our public schools, first with charter schools and then with voucher pilot programs despite the evidence that these programs either did not help, or in fact undermined student learning.

In the years since the Blue Ribbon Commission and Lakeview reforms, several organizations have brought stakeholders together and hired experts to again look at the evidence on what would help our students achieve more.

Some of the groups who’ve released reports on improving our education system include: Forward Arkansas, The Arkansas Education Association, The Arkansas Association of School Administrators, The Arkansas School Boards Association, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and my organization, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

Again there is broad consensus from all of the efforts on what will help students the most:

  • Improve teacher quality;
  • Expand access to high quality Pre-K;
  • Make high quality after school and summer programs available to all;
  • Provide wrap around services to children in low income families;
  • Increase community and parental engagement with educators and policy makers; and
  • Improve career education programs.

Again what is missing from all of these organizations’ recommendations is school privatization because it still does not have credible evidence to support it and because it remains divisive. A quality education system requires the buy in and investment of time and money from all stakeholders in the system. Eroding trust erodes education.

Which brings us to the Sanders’ administration and what we know of her education proposal.

Instead of collaborating among stakeholders, she has made these plans in private with the help of a small set of lobbyists and advisors and just a small group of lawmakers who think they know what’s best for the rest of us.

There are some positive elements to what we know of her plan, if they are adequately funded, but they are overshadowed by several elements that are divisive, not supported by the evidence:

  • Privatizing public education through private school vouchers and a massive expansion of charter schools;
  • Doing away with merit and experience based pay for teachers and replacing it with high stakes test incentives; and
  • Doing away with the teacher fair dismissal act.

Much of Gov. Sanders’ education plan is ill-defined, so a million questions remain about how this “plan” will be implemented on the local level? How many of these proposed new mandates, some of which are good, will be funded? 

The biggest question though is why hasn’t the governor engaged Arkansas stakeholders and looked at the evidence to build a consensus agenda around proven reforms? It’s such a squandered opportunity.

At the end of the day, what we do know is that the problems with the governor’s plan are so severe that they will undermine the foundation of public education and threaten its long term viability. Getting public education right is critically important. It is the constitutional birthright of every Arkansas child.

It’s so important that we need the governor to back up, engage the community and stakeholders, look at the evidence and build a non-partisan, consensus agenda together again. Our kids and our state’s future deserve nothing less.

Editor’s note: Bill Kopsky is the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The views expressed are those of the author.