On School “Choice”

**Note: For my readers in Garland County, Arkansas, the following article references the school “choice” movement on the federal level (a national push to funnel public tax dollars to private schools), not the unique school choice guidelines in Hot Springs and surrounding areas.

As National School Choice Week comes to a close, it’s time to talk about the dangerous implications of the push for school “choice” in this country.  You may recall the confusion and dismay that rocked the nation when a billionaire and commercialized education advocate with a profound lack of credentials was named the Secretary of Education. The reasons behind the appointment of Betsy DeVos may be puzzling to many, but it comes as no surprise to public school officials and education professionals who have been following the school choice movement for some time. The truth is that our nation’s public schools are under attack.  And if we don’t stand up and speak out now, one of our most cherished and precious institutions will be systematically destroyed at the hands of those who seek to profit off of our kids.

To thoroughly understand this issue, it is imperative that we look at how we got here. The past few decades have ushered in new ideas and efforts to improve our educational system, many of which have led to wonderful improvements and additions to curriculum and course offerings. The public sentiment behind these changes is something we all agree on: We must constantly seek to improve our educational system for the future of our children.  In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of private schools open all over the country.  Considered alone, this might be no cause for alarm.  But when you take into account the more recent attempt to funnel our taxpayer dollars from public schools to private schools, it is clear that something much more insidious is at play.

First, let’s get something straight.  Our nation’s schools are NOT failing.  Advocates of commercialized education may push that narrative, but the reality is that our schools are the bedrock of this country – and our teachers are some of the hardest working, most compassionate and caring individuals out there.  Our community schools are staffed with educators and administrators who are our friends, family, and neighbors – people who are working every day to do all they can to make a difference in the lives of their students.  And parents agree. In fact, according to a 2017 poll conducted by PDK International, an overwhelming majority of the American public is pleased with the experience their kids have at the community school they attend. The data is clear:  71% of public school parents give their child’s school an A or a B rating.  In Garland County, each of our seven school districts is implementing innovative new programs and creative techniques designed to best serve their student population.  And that’s the case in every school where I’ve worked in my fourteen-year career in education in this state.

So why do people feel that the nation’s schools as a whole are failing when parents are overwhelmingly pleased with the performance of the school their own child attends?  Because there is money involved – BIG money – and there are groups that stand to profit enormously by making the public believe our schools are rotting, our teachers are failing, and our kids are suffering.  Those who would like to see your taxpayer dollars diverted from our public schools into private schools are the very ones who stand to make money off our kids’ education.  But here’s the paradox:  When we attack our nation’s schools, we are really attacking the very schools our kids attend.  And a national attempt to discredit our public schools has far-reaching consequences that directly affect us here in Arkansas, where our schools are funded by a mix of property taxes and state general revenue.  Just last year, HB 1222 introduced in the Arkansas state legislature would have led to an almost $10 million reduction in funds in one year’s time, according to the Department of Finance and Administration, and all in the name of school “choice.” The bill didn’t pass last session, but the fight is far from over. Commercialized education advocates are outright courting legislators who will sponsor bills to funnel taxpayer money into private schools.  And we can’t afford to let that happen.

I have spent my career in secondary and higher education teaching all over southwest and central Arkansas, and there is no doubt that teaching is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling professions a person could ever hope to have.  There is also little doubt that it is one of the most challenging. In today’s world, ripe with attacks on public education and on education in general, teachers have a responsibility to foster a culture that encourages students to read widely, listen constantly, and think reflectively.  That’s a tall order, but let’s be clear: Teachers don’t go into the career for the paycheck.  They enter the profession because they want to make a difference in the lives of their students, and they do – each and every day.  And they do it all despite working in a field that earns them far less respect and pay than they deserve.  So to the greedy, money hungry groups that would attempt to discredit our community schools and the educators who work in them because they’re looking for profits, I say get ready – because this mother is not about to sit idly by and watch it happen.

Arkansas students deserve the very best.  Our kids have just as much potential as every other kid is this nation.  Our children are our future, and they deserve every opportunity in the world.  We need champions of public schools to stand up and fight for the students in our communities and the educators who teach them, and we need legislators who will empower local schools with the funding, resources, and flexibility to do the best job they possibly can – because Arkansas schools are NOT for sale.

This matters.  We matter.  So stand up and fight for our community schools.  Fight for our educators.  Fight for our kids.  They’re worth it.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.

Hayden

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On Abortion

It’s time to have a frank conversation about abortion.  In the South, abortion continues to be the single issue that drives our people to the polls to vote for one candidate or the other. On the far left, some advocate for a “litmus” test on abortion.  On the far right, some push for overturning Roe. vs. Wade completely.  Sadly, because of the deeply personal and intimate nature of this issue, often our rhetoric is reduced to sheer hyperbole on both sides of the political aisle.  We resort to such language as “women-haters” or “baby-killers,” only furthering the political divide that plagues this nation.

The reality is this: No woman WANTS to be in the painful position of deciding whether to have an abortion.  Show me a woman who wants to be put in that awful and heartbreaking situation, and I’ll show you an anomaly – like easily finding a four-leaf clover in a one-acre field in the South.  And by focusing on the result instead of the cause, we are alienating ourselves from one another and doing more harm than we are good.  What we need to be focused on is how to reduce the number of abortions by putting our attention in the two places we can do the most good: Education and prevention.

Arkansas remains as one of the highest in the nation for teen pregnancy rates; in fact, according to the Arkansas Department of Health, in 2014 we were ranked #1 in the country for teen pregnancy rates among females aged 18-19 and 15-19.  Even more alarming is that 84.5 percent of those teen births were to unmarried teens.  And teen pregnancy comes with a hefty price tag to taxpayers; according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an analysis in 2010 found the cost to the public due to teen childbearing comes to a whopping $9.4 billion per year.

This doesn’t factor in the enormous emotional and economic toll teen childbirth has on the immediate family.  Young women who become teen moms are overwhelmingly more likely to live in poverty, according to NCSL.  Only half of teen moms are ever able to finish school, and most end up depending on welfare programs in order to support themselves and their family.  In the South, many young children end up in the care of their grandparents, as teen mothers are too often unprepared to cope with the financial and emotional challenges that come with raising a child.

Whatever your personal position on abortion, it’s time for us to come together on an issue where we should all agree: Reducing teen pregnancy.  Whether you advocate for abstinence based programs or comprehensive sexual education, the end goal is the same.  We all want fewer of our young women to ever be put in a situation where they might have to contemplate an abortion.  How do we do that? We implement a dually structured curriculum choice for families in our public schools to be taken by teens during the fall semester of their sophomore year of high school.  Parents can elect whether an abstinence only or comprehensive sexual education program is the right choice for their child, but both programs should include the enormous economic and emotional implications of becoming pregnant when you aren’t ready.  We cannot continue to ignore a problem that isn’t going away.

This isn’t rocket science.  If you want to solve a problem, you start with the cause of that problem – not with the result.  Of course, I know that there will still be those who will demand a black and white answer to my position on the issue of abortion, as I’m running for office in a state where this single issue can determine the candidate that a voter chooses.  But abortion, like so many other complex and complicated moral issues, is far too often not black and white for the women who are put in that heartbreaking position for whatever reasons.  And I refuse to presume that I could ever make a choice for another family about an issue that is so deeply intimate and personal.  So my answer is this:  I won’t answer for someone else.

I know that my stance on this issue is not a popular one.  I also don’t doubt that before the election is over, I will face appalling commentary and perhaps even outrageously be painted as a “baby-killer” for refusing to make a moral choice on behalf of someone else.  But you know what?  I’ve got broad shoulders.  I can take it.  And I dare those that might attempt to use hyper-partisan language (on both sides) to look into the eyes of my husband and precious three-year-old little girl before they ever presume to attack me or my moral values. In Arkansas, we value faith, family, and a better tomorrow for the future of our children.  I’m running for office to protect those values, regardless of what direction of the political aisle you might lean.

Now is not the time for more partisan infighting in this country.  Now is the time for us to come together to find bipartisan common-sense solutions on the tough issues, and that includes reducing the number of abortions and lowering the teen pregnancy rate in Arkansas. We cannot shy away from the tough issues. Our young men and women deserve leaders who are brave, bold, and driven to make real change for the country they will inherit from us.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.