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Arkansas governor renews call for education reform

Daniel Breen
Supporters of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education policy agenda listen to her speak in the rotunda of the Arkansas State Capitol on Thursday.

The State of Arkansas will be a national leader in education reform, according to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The governor has said she hopes to tackle a slew of educational issues in her first term, including workforce readiness, access to broadband internet, teacher accountability and allowing state dollars to help fund students’ education in private, parochial or charter schools.

In a rally Thursday hosted by the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity, Sanders said Arkansas will be on the frontlines of the school choice debate under her administration.

“We have to make sure that we are focused on parental empowerment. Empowering our parents is one of the most critical things that we can do when it comes to a child’s success in education. This is not about school choice, this is about parental choice,” Sanders said.

Sanders signed three executive orders relating to education on her first day in office, including one banning Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. Speaking to the large crowd of educators, parents and students, the governor said improving literacy rates will be a key focus of her education agenda.

“We know that if a child is not reading by that critical benchmark of third grade, that we are setting them up for a lifetime of failure,” Sanders said. “70% of those incarcerated in the State of Arkansas cannot read. That is a scary indicator, and something we know we can fix and address. And in Arkansas, we will.”

Mac Faulkner listened to the governor’s comments alongside several of her supporters. A longtime school board member in central Arkansas in the 1980s and 1990s, he said his views on school choice have changed in light of pervasive discipline problems in public schools.

He echoed the governor’s sentiments that state dollars should follow individual students, whether they attend public, private or charter schools.

“I used to not support private schools because it took money out of the public school systems, but now if that is the only way a child can get a decent education… I think a parent should decide where they want to send their kids, not the government,” Faulkner said.

He agreed with the governor’s calls to increase the minimum teacher pay, but stressed that raises should be merit-based and tied to some form of accountability-measuring system.

Gennie Diaz, executive director of the nonprofit For AR People, also listened to the governor’s remarks. She says, while parents should be free to choose which school their children attend, the state shouldn’t be expected to pay for their private school education.

“We believe that school choice is about what public school best fits your family. We don’t believe in taking public tax dollars and putting them into vouchers for families that can send their kids to private schools, to charter schools, especially when there are a lot of Arkansas students who don’t have access to private schools or charter schools,” Diaz said.

Leaders in the state House and Senate have said they plan to address the governor’s policy proposals in a large, “omnibus” legislative package. Gov. Sanders says that’s expected to be introduced in the legislature in the coming weeks.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.