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OPINION | GREG HARTON: How will Arkansas’ public education fare under a new governor’s leadership?

by Greg Harton | January 18, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The idea that parents matter in the education of their children isn't exactly an Einstein-level discovery.

They've always mattered and too many shirk their direct involvement their child's education. I've sat at parent/teacher conferences where the teacher laments that the parents whose child desperately needs them to show up are the ones who rarely darken the classroom's doors.

My wife and I are "those" parents who have shown up at such conferences even when one of our kids was making an "A" in the class. Why miss an opportunity to hear your child's teacher sing his praises, right? Your kid has worked hard for that.

In Arkansas, education isn't always embraced as a crucial component of a child's future. I'm not saying people want their kids uneducated, but there are people who only want them educated to a certain level.

I was born and raised here. I've seen the influence of Arkansas' famed inferiority complex (not just when it comes to Razorbacks). It seems that would make us all want better for the next generation, but it's not hard to find attitudes that send a limiting message: "Go to school, but don't get too smart for your own britches."

A broad-based education can be viewed as threatening among parents who are more invested in protecting a "way of life" than exposing their kids to critical thinking skills. I think that's what drives a lot of the push for public funding for private and faith-based schooling.

I've got nothing against faith. Mine is in Jesus. But public money ought not support religious education. That's between parents and their children. I support the idea that public funding ought not be about indoctrination in any way.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders says her administration will have "a laser-like focus on improving education," with her push for "parental empowerment" a primary goal. In the wake of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson's focus on computer coding, Sanders says literacy and "real-world skills they need to succeed in the workplace" are priorities.

That could simply mean a back-to-basics approach that recognizes you've got to be able to write and read before you can move on to more advanced lessons. There's absolute truth to that, which makes her stated desire for stronger pre-K education a welcome component of her education plans.

Then again, when some people talk about "real-world" education, it can be shorthand for dismissing anything in education they don't like, perhaps exploration of literature and philosophy and the sciences -- you know, the kinds of subjects that help kids think rather than just memorize.

Parental empowerment is fine, depending on how that's defined. Is it motivating parents to take an active part in their kids' educational path, helping teachers create an atmosphere where learning is valued? Or is it just about control, i.e., reducing trained educators' decisions about what's taught and turning more control over to parents who don't want kids -- theirs or anyone else's -- to hear anything that might offend a parents' values?

The question is whether Sanders intends to strengthen the public school system as the backbone of Arkansas education, or cast it as a failing system from which the state must rescue parents and students by creating other publicly funded options.

Maybe her desire to raise teacher pay is a sign she wants a strong public school system. Or, given her push to package all her education changes in one piece of legislation, is it just the leverage she needs to convince lawmakers to give her what she really wants?

With less than a week of her leadership to gauge by, it's anyone's guess.

Print Headline: Is public education a priority?

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