Getting schooled…

Imagine that you were handed a 144-page contract on an issue of importance to you and your family on a Monday at five minutes until 5 p.m. The stipulation being that you had Tuesday to read and think about it before you could discuss it with your lawyer on Wednesday prior to making a decision on Thursday. Common sense would indicate to most people that more time is needed to make such decisions or at the very least it would raise a red flag. This was basically how much time the Arkansas Senate had to make a decision on Senate Bill 294, the LEARNS Act, this week.

Two elements of the bill have been used to promote it; 1) attempting to incite a fear of indoctrination, particularly to prohibit teaching ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory. Although I haven’t heard of that being an issue in Arkansas, it is mainly reserved for graduate-level college coursework. Frankly at the graduate level, people are adults and are supposed to be critical thinkers, researchers and adept at discussing and defending ideas based on the Socratic Method. 2) the popular stance of raising teacher salaries. Teachers deserve to be paid better. While the $50,000 salary for teachers sounds like a positive, but because the bill was rushed through the Senate, I think someone should look closely at the fine print into the financial plan in paying teachers in the following years.

What is alarming is that most issues that involve a large section of the population and stakeholders involve at least a modicum of transparency. There’s usually a month or a few weeks when the public has an opportunity to weigh in and comment. There was no such opportunity for legislators or for families, much less teachers and school districts, to think about what’s inside the LEARNS Act before it passed through the Senate on Thursday. The bill will probably be in the House on Tuesday with a possible vote on next Wednesday.

Of particular concern to school districts and educators is the private school vouchers (more about that later) and the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. If the title of the latter is as it sounds, it would seem it would be a step backwards. Any bill that hints at taking away teachers’ rights to due process is more than likely unfair.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a move in the federal government to try to operate education as a profitable business and to hold educators accountable for test scores. Educators have already been schooled by legislative mandates, such as the years of No Child Left Behind and its testing timeline for 100% proficiency. It was also touted as the next best thing to sliced bread, an answer to low literacy and math rates. It was thought that people trained to be teachers for a few weeks would be highly qualified educators. It was a stressful time when licensed teachers were pressured and some even lost their jobs over test scores when they had no control over students’ circumstances in their classrooms that impact learning. Anyone versed in Maslow’s Hierarchy knows this. Children can’t think when they are hungry, or have family issues impacting their lives. While the voucher program mentions allowing students in impoverished neighborhoods to move to different schools, it does not address the root problem of eliminating poverty.

Other parts of the LEARNS legislation include performance bonuses of up to $10,000 for teachers. Performance bonus is typically code for good test scores, but can mean others things such as teachers performing what are considered tasks above and beyond certain tiers. The term “performance bonus” is business vernacular and could mean it might be tied to a teacher’s employment.

The private school voucher sounds very much like a way to turn education into a profit making business. If indeed, by 2026, the LEARNS bill would finance vouchers for 90% of per-student foundational funding that could be used for home school expenses or private school tuition, it could detrimentally impact neighborhood schools that depend on the per-student foundational funding. It would devastate our local schools, many like my community’s school, that not only educates our children but is also a major employer in our town.

Also, included in the bill is an initiative to raise the literacy rate. Only 38% of Arkansas third graders are proficient in reading according to the Arkansas Community Foundation’s Aspire Arkansas Report in 2019. Part of the plan to improve literacy is to deploy 120 literacy coaches across Arkansas to help kids improve their reading success. Years of literacy programs, reading incentive programs, coaches, and tutors have not made a measurable dent in a literacy rate. What does work is parents and teachers who model daily reading to foster a love of reading and research-based curriculum and instruction.

Those saying public school is not preparing students for college and the workforce have not been paying attention. In northeast Arkansas students have opportunities for the career path of their choice. Since 1830 public school has provided universal access to education while leveling the playing field for decades of learners.

Public schools do in fact educate people who can think and engage in what is happening in their community, country, and the world. Most Arkansans are graduates of public schools.

The very definition of indoctrination is forcing a way of thinking and learning on generations of learners. Public schools do not need legislation forcing them to teach learners how to think. If the state wants to foster autonomous, lifelong learners they would do better to invest in educating teachers in inquiry-based, student-centered learning. This type of learning doesn’t require standardized testing, or months spent in classrooms conducting test prep. Literacy rates would raise naturally. I’ve seen it happen in my own classroom as a former teacher. Take the state of New Hampshire for instance, its overall literacy rate is 94.2%, the highest in the nation according to the World Population Review website. About 60.8% of the population are registered library users. States like New Hampshire are far ahead in the field when it comes to personalized learning and competency-based education. Those states are truly fostering a generation of learners who can think critically. Arkansas could learn a great deal from the states who know that letter grades do not indicate the health of a school’s education system, or that a child has learned.

The scariest fact about public school for the private school voucher supporters is this: public schools have the potential with the proper educational investment to foster a well-rounded education with young people who are able to read, write and consider different viewpoints; intelligent graduates who would see through the quick passage of the LEARNS Act. Education should not be a Red vs Blue issue, it’s a “let’s put children and the future of Arkansas first” issue.

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