By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
The first of many rallies against Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ educational reform was held Thursday in Arkadelphia, where a non-partisan grassroots organization assembled to address their concerns with the Arkansas LEARNS Act.
The event, held at the Arkadelphia Community Family Enrichment Center, drew a diverse crowd of about 60 citizens, mostly educators, parents and students from seven area school districts as far away as Murfreesboro and Glen Rose.
The Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) is a statewide organization hoping to gather enough signatures to place on a ballot a reversal of the governor’s reform. Once the 94th General Assembly officially adjourns in May, CAPES will have 90 days to collect some 55,000 signatures from 50 Arkansas counties to place the referendum on a ballot. They will begin collecting signatures once Attorney General Tim Griffin approves language for the ballot title; the group on Thursday had submitted its second version of the title after Griffin rejected the first referendum.
Arkadelphia was one of eight locations in Arkansas where CAPES rallied Thursday evening.
Leading the charge in Arkadelphia was Johnnie Roebuck, a former state representative and retired professor at Henderson State University’s Teachers College. Borrowing a slogan from the 1980s Reagan-led war on drugs campaign, Roebuck pleaded with those in attendance to “just say no” to the LEARNS Act.
Roebuck offered a history of past educational legislation that was successfully overturned, including the state-mandated Skills Test that required teachers to prove their basic academic skills. That mandate was backed by then-Gov. Bill Clinton; Roebuck was one of nine educators who successfully sued Clinton, a fellow Democrat who would later acknowledge the tests were a mistake and ask forgiveness from the Arkansas Educators Association and for for their support in his presidential run. It appears that history has repeated itself, as Sanders, who’ll likely use her governorship as a stepping stone for a presidential bid, has many public school educators up in arms over the LEARNS Act.
Roebuck also made mention of the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which requires school districts to give teachers written notice of any suspension or termination of their contracts. The LEARNS Act, Roebuck noted, will diminish that law and harm teachers.
Arkansas legislators, Roebuck said, have acknowledged they supported Sanders’ reform “because they had to” to avoid repercussions from Sanders. “We’ve got to stand up,” Roebuck said. “Votes have consequences.”
Several others spoke out against the LEARNS Act, including one area school teacher. Tyler Draper, a science teacher at Lakeside Junior High School, argued that segregation will be an inevitable result of Sanders’ reform, and that the wealthy will be given priority for private school vouchers as happened with similar educational reform in Arizona.
An Arkadelphia mother whose adolescent child has special needs also voiced concerns about the law. (Ed: In order to shield the student’s identity, The Arkadelphian did not identify the parent.) She first praised the school district’s special education teachers who have helped advance his reading and math levels to reach his grade level. LEARNS, however, will push for “inclusion classrooms” and draw attention to special needs students, as their special education teachers will be in the classroom to assist their students in the same classroom as other students.
LEARNS, she fears, will invest more in nontraditional schools that are required neither to meet special education needs nor to accept all students.
“How will this work?” she said. “Where are you getting the money? What losses will our public schools face? How many employees will we lose?”
Kenneth Harris, an Arkadelphia school board member who’s asked questions about the act in board meetings, took issue with the LEARNS Act not addressing early childhood education. “How can we leave out such a critical part of a child’s life and it not be addressed?” Harris said.
Arkadelphia pastor Rev. Lewellyn Terry addressed the act’s effects on a community. Terry echoed Draper’s comments about racial divide returning to public schools, adding the act will “aggressively” revert back to segregation. “If we look at the LEARNS Act, it is not beneficial for us,” Terry said, encouraging citizens to “read the fine print [of the act] slow and steady.”