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.



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.

On 2017

Last weekend, Vanity Fair released a video suggesting a new hobby for the first female to be nominated for president by a major political party: Take up knitting. Vanity Fair’s message isn’t new; in fact, many of us know it quite well.  Perhaps that’s why personally addressing it to the one person who came closest to shattering the glass ceiling is so audacious.  Yes, Vanity Fair.  Yes, America. We hear you.  We’ve always heard you. Sit down.  Be quiet.  Bake cookies.  Make tea.  Go knit.  Look pretty.  Smile.

There’s no doubt that women got the message. If the data bears any indication, 2018 will be a year of reckoning in this country.  369 women are planning to run for Congress next year, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.  Over 22,000 women have reached out to Emily’s List about running for various offices.  And if the nastiness of the 2016 election and the resounding defeat taught us anything, it was how to knit pretty pink hats to decorate the heads of some three million women who participated in marches all over the country last January and who will be the first in line at the polls next November.

You see, we can’t keep quiet, and we won’t stay seated.  The legacy of the United States of America demands that its citizens not sit idly by when our country is headed down the wrong path. Our democracy gives us both the right and the duty to do more than just complain about inequality and injustice – it compels us to take action. We know without a doubt that our tomorrow can bring affordable healthcare, superior education, and a vibrant economy for all of our people, not just those at the top. We care deeply about this country and our institutions, and we will fight to protect this democracy for the future of our children.

As I write this, a bouncy, vibrant three-year-old girl is running across our living room, yelling, “I’m brave, fast, and strong.”  It’s one of her favorite phrases.  And it’s one of mine too, along with a few others:  Stand up.  Be proud.  Dream big.  Make change. Don’t quit. Believe.

There are many lessons my daughter will learn over the years, but there is none I’m prouder to teach her than that she’s worth fighting for.

The countdown to 2018 is on.  I can’t wait to see what it brings.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.



On Addiction in Arkansas

We have a drug problem in southern Arkansas, and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer.  For years, methamphetamine use has plagued our rural counties, sinking its claws into our communities and turning residents into addicts.  A November 2017 issue of Rolling Stone magazine described the problems currently facing the state of Arkansas this way: “There are no jobs here, especially since Walmart moved on, and residents seem chained to a life of poverty, addiction, and dealing to support their habits.”  While this description at first may seem harsh, the reality is that it is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing our rural residents. For many, drug use is an escape from the reality of life in south Arkansas, where our citizens are frustrated by a severe lack of jobs and educational opportunities in the towns where they live.   And if we don’t take immediate action to address the root of the problem and help our people, the issues of poverty and addiction will only get worse.

Last month’s heartbreaking HBO documentary “Meth Storm” highlighted the deeply devastating effects meth use has had on rural Arkansas communities and the people who live here.  In the film, Veronica Converse, a resident and addict from Clinton, Arkansas, explains how many people in her community turn to dealing drugs because it is often the only opportunity they feel they have.  At one point she pointedly remarks, “Nine out of 10 people here are meth heads.” The documentary closely follows Veronica and her son, Teddy, who is jailed repeatedly for drug charges only to be released and return to the same habits that put him there.  Sadly, the story of the Converse family is not unique to communities in southwest and central Arkansas.  The film exposes the harsh realities of depressed communities and poor economic conditions in our state, where people often feel ignored, trapped, and hopeless.

And now our state’s residents are grappling with yet another addiction that is growing at an alarming rate:  Opioids.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of prescriptions written in this state far outnumber the people who live here; in fact, for every 100 residents living in Arkansas, there are now 116 prescriptions.  And those most at risk are our low-income rural residents – the same people who have been struggling with meth use for decades.  What’s even more concerning is the effect this is having on our young people.  According to the Arkansas State Crime Lab, Arkansas now ranks first in the nation for nonmedical teen prescription drug abuse, and two thirds of those drugs are obtained by teens in the homes of their friends and family members.  Overdoses are also on the rise. Data from the Arkansas Department of Health Emergency Management System reveals that the number of emergency medical calls made in 2016 that required the administration of Naloxone – the medication administered to combat opioid overdose – almost doubled from that of the previous year.  In 2016 alone, over 2,456 calls were made due to Arkansas residents who had overdosed.

What’s interesting to note is how many opioid addiction cases in this state begin with what seems relatively harmless.  If someone suffers a fall or is injured as the result of a car accident, they do what anyone would: Seek pain relief from their doctor.  But opioid addiction often develops as the undesired result of what was originally a legitimate prescription yet eventually led to a dangerous drug dependency.  And it’s affecting all of us.  Almost everyone knows someone who is affected – from the veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome to the mother who started taking painkillers as a result of an injury – opioid addiction does not discriminate.  So how do we approach a problem that is growing more and more prevalent with every passing day?

First, we must recognize the mistakes of our past.  This is not the first opioid epidemic we’ve encountered, although it is the first to come in the form of legal prescriptions.  In the early 80s and 90s, the heroin epidemic was widespread and predominantly affected communities of color throughout this nation.  Large numbers of people were addicted, and our initial response was to criminalize the behavior of addicts, resulting in a massive increase in the number of incarcerations. It is imperative that we act upon a sincere desire to treat the cause rather than condemn the results. We also must take responsibility for the mistakes of our past and do all we can to help those who are reentering society from prison as a result of heroin related convictions in the 80s and 90s.  Going forward, our actions must be guided by both empathy and compassion for those suffering from addiction rather than the judgment and condemnation we showed in the past.

We also must recognize the importance of keeping families together while treating the problem of addiction.  According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, “There are more than 5,000 children and youth in foster care in Arkansas, but only about 1,600 foster family homes.”  And research shows a link between substance abuse and the growing number of children in foster care. In fact, more than half of the children who are removed from their homes in Arkansas are taken because of parental drug abuse. The current opioid crisis is forcing more and more children into state custody. Parental substance abuse is one of the primary causes of the rapid increase of children in the foster care system.  Rural areas with a higher propensity for substance abuse also have a higher number of drug related foster care cases. In Arkansas, our system is overloaded, and we do not have enough resources or trained caseworkers to handle the growing crisis. By taking a proactive stance to address addiction, we have the capacity to keep families together and to give our state’s children the best chance at a promising future.

What that means is that legislators must take a two-pronged approach to solving the problem, expanding our state’s services through a whole patient approach to treat addiction while at the same time keeping families intact.  Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is one approach that balances medications with a proven history of success at treating opioid addiction with behavioral counseling.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “MAT increases social functioning and retention in treatment,” while decreasing “opioid use and opioid-related overdose deaths.”   But as we seek out the programs like MAT that will do the most good for those suffering from addiction, our primary goal must be to ensure that working parents have access to the treatment they need and that they can care for their children while accessing outpatient services.

Finally, we cannot ignore the hopeless economic conditions that are the reality in rural Arkansas. We must make it a priority to create meaningful job opportunities for our residents in depressed rural areas and to raise wages for hourly employees so that they earn a livable wage. Too often our attention is focused on expanding economic growth in our more populated areas, while people in small communities all over our state are hurting – and hurting badly.  The reality is that our legislators have failed to provide solutions and practical pathways for our rural residents to get ahead, and with no other viable option before them, many have turned to drugs for temporary relief from the hopelessness of their situation. It is our responsibility to provide practical pathways to affordable vocational and educational training for our people so that they have the means to climb up and out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

The people of Arkansas are facing real problems, and we need legislators who are focused on finding real solutions. The time is now to elect leaders who will take action to address the very real issues of poverty and addiction that are plaguing our state.  We can’t afford to wait.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.


On Sex and Society

Yesterday, the women of the #MeToo movement were named people of the year by Time Magazine for breaking their silence and bravely speaking up about sexual harassment.  During the course of the past few weeks, we have witnessed an onslaught of women coming forward to share their experiences with men who have engaged in inappropriate behavior. Just today, Senator Al Franken announced his intention to resign from his position in the U.S. Senate as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct.  The problem itself isn’t new.  In fact, the male-female power dynamic is as old as time itself.  What is new, however, is an overwhelming number of women in the workforce and a society that is ill prepared for how to deal with the rapidly changing face of the world. And while exposing the problem by speaking up is a step in the right direction, unless we take active measures to address the root of the problem, our daughters and granddaughters will continue to struggle with the problems of sexual harassment, gender disparity, poverty, and income inequality that plague this nation.

The solution to this problem lies, as it often does, in education – but perhaps not where you might think. The initial response to the public outcry has been calls for resignations and an increased implementation of sexual harassment training in the workplace. Companies are providing comprehensive training for their adult workforce, and even the federal government is now requiring members of Congress and their staff to attend mandatory sexual harassment training.  And while that is a valuable and worthwhile investment, the reality is that waiting until men and women are fully grown is much too late to address a problem that begins far earlier and the effects of which encompass much more than instances of sexual harassment. We must do a better job at educating our youth about the boundaries of healthy relationships, and that education must begin in the formative years of early adolescence, when young men and women are just learning about one another and how to interact.

Any experienced educator will tell you that the only way to achieve the results you seek is to teach the outcomes you desire.  But all too often our schools focus strictly on academic content while ignoring one of the most critical components of a holistic education: Life skills.  And one of the most important life skills young men and women must learn is how to interact with one another appropriately and how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. We might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but we can certainly teach our youth the boundaries of appropriate behavior, and in doing so, we can train a new generation of young people to enter a workforce that looks vastly different than it did fifty years ago.

By teaching our young people to interact with one another appropriately and to develop and maintain healthy relationships, we will do much more than reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment in the workplace – we will improve the overall state of our economy by addressing other problems that stem from a lack of education, like teen pregnancy and poverty. Research shows that there is an inarguable link between poverty and family planning choices.  According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of teen pregnancy and childbearing.”  Having a child is one of the costliest undertakings of an individual’s life, and when teenagers become pregnant, they often become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, depending on public assistance for support. The truth is that poverty is cyclical, and the only way we can break this vicious cycle is to equip our young people with the life skills they need to make wise decisions in relationships with the opposite sex.

The United States ranks as one of the highest in the industrialized world for teen pregnancy and birth rates, and here in Arkansas, the numbers are even more alarming. Arkansas is ranked 44th in the nation for poverty rates, according to U.S. News and World Report.  We are 49th in the nation in terms of wages, and 1 out of every 4 of our children live at or below the poverty line.  It should be no surprise, then, that our teen pregnancy and birth rate is also one of the highest in the nation, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In 2014, more than 4 out of every 100 teenage girls gave birth, 85% of whom were single and without adequate resources.  Teen pregnancy is the number one reason young women drop out of school, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and this directly affects their career goals and economic future. “Only about half of teen mothers earn a high school diploma by age 22, compared to 90 percent of women without a teen birth,” the National Conference of State Legislators reports.  And the children they have are much more likely “to have lower school achievement, enter the child welfare and correctional systems, drop out of high school, and become teen parents themselves.”  Thus the cycle continues.

Some might argue that teaching our young people to make wise and healthy relationship choices is best left to parents in the comfort of their own home. I wholeheartedly agree. There is nobody better equipped to teach my daughter to look out for her health and financial well-being than I am.  But the reality is that my daughter does not face the same challenges as the majority of the youth in this state.  She was born into a two-parent household where both individuals hold graduate level degrees. In a state where almost 190,000 low income children live with only a single parent, we cannot expect the overwhelming majority of our young people to receive this education at home, where too often a full time working mother is struggling to pay the bills, put food on the table, and pay for prescription medications her children need. And if we don’t intervene – if we don’t come together and demand a better tomorrow for the future of our children – the cycle will only continue, and the income gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen.  And our daughters and granddaughters will continue to face the same problems that plagued our mothers and grandmothers.

Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country. Now is the time to lift our voices in unison to say that enough is enough – and to demand better for our children. Education is the answer.  It always is.  And we have the power to bring about the change we seek.  It’s our time.  We are called to lead the charge.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.


On the Tax Bill

Last week, the entire Arkansas congressional delegation voted for a tax bill that rewards corporations on the backs of working class families.  They voted for a bill that will explode the federal deficit in order to give massive tax breaks to the wealthiest of the wealthy.  They voted for a bill that according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center will cause over a quarter of American households to see their taxes go up by 2027. They voted for a bill that will hurt Arkansas families.

The mega-rich in this state aren’t hurting.  Our state’s working class families are hurting, and it’s time we sit up and pay attention. History shows that the only way to effectively grow the economy is from the middle out and bottom up – yet our legislators voted for a plan that adds trillions to the national debt just to give tax breaks to the donor class. Arkansas needs meaningful legislation that benefits real people and not corporations and multi-millionaires.  We deserve representatives who care about people, not profits.

Research shows that trickle down economics does not improve the lives of working class families.  One thing it does do effectively, however, is continue the vicious cycle of income inequality and cyclical poverty that plagues our state and states all over the country. The only way to grow the economy and make a real difference in people’s lives is by helping the people who need it – like the single mom working two jobs and taking night classes at the local community college who dreams that one day she’ll be able to afford a home with a backyard and a dog for her two kids.  Yet instead our legislators slash taxes for the wealthiest of the wealthy while our state’s residents struggle to put food on the table and pay for the prescription medications their kids need.

Arkansas is ranked 44th in the nation for poverty rates with more than 17% of our state’s residents living at or below the poverty line, according to U.S. News and World Report. We are 49th in terms of wages with a median household income of only $44,300.  Poverty is particularly prevalent in Garland County, affecting 1 out of every 4 children and seniors. But under the tax plan that our representatives voted for, 11 million American families will see tax increases of up to $1,000, according to the Tax Policy Center.  The stark reality is that Arkansas families can’t afford it.

My husband and I are educators and are not independently wealthy; we’re hardworking Arkansans just like our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  And just like our family and friends across this state, we worry about the increases in cost of living and how we’ll continue to save money for our daughter’s college education.  What it comes down to is that the solution to the problems of poverty, healthcare, and income inequality doesn’t come in the form of cutting taxes for the wealthy.  The only proven solution that works is to make serious investments in working class families – yet our representatives have chosen to reward corporations and ignore the real problems facing our residents.

It’s time to elect legislators who truly care about the people they represent.  We deserve representatives who listen to their constituents and will propose real solutions to the problems facing Arkansas families. We deserve legislators who will make meaningful strides to invest in educational opportunities for our people, drive down the costs of prescription medications, and ensure that our people have jobs they can count on and income they can live on.  And we can’t afford to wait.

Our people are hurting, and we need legislators who are focused on helping Arkansas families achieve more, do more, and be more.  The time is now.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.

On the Economy & Education

Few people realize how closely aligned education is with a state’s economy.  Education is an economic issue, and until we recognize that and begin providing long-term solutions in the form of a stronger educational system that meets the needs of our people, our residents will continue to face economic and financial hardships. Research shows that those who are highly educated earn higher incomes and are more likely to have job security.  Those who are not well educated are much more likely to be unemployed and to struggle financially throughout their lives. The most important step we can take in order to make our workforce more productive and to tangibly improve the quality of people’s lives is to invest in education. Arkansas can and must do a better job.

When you read the statistics on the state of education in Arkansas, the reality is alarming.  Only 39% of graduating seniors in Arkansas met reading readiness benchmarks on the ACT in 2015, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In younger grades, the data is even more concerning:  Only 27% of Arkansas’ 8th grade students are proficient in reading.  That means that only a little over 1 in 4 Arkansas students are able to read proficiently at grade level.  When we compare that data with how other states are performing, Arkansas is on the low end; our reading scores place us in the bottom third in a side by side comparison.

Our state is teeming with poverty, and poverty is cyclical.  According to U.S. News and World Report, Arkansas ranks 44th in the nation for poverty rates with more than 17% of our state’s residents living at or below the poverty line.  We are 49th in terms of wages with a median household income of only $44,300.  There is also an unarguable link between poverty and low literacy rates.  According to Family and Community Engagement Research, 61% of low-income families do not have age appropriate books in their home.  In low-income neighborhoods, there is often only one book for every 300 children.

Some initiatives such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library have tried to combat this by providing free age-appropriate books each month to children in participating communities. But we must do more.  The only way to break the seemingly never-ending cycle is to provide the means for our people to climb up and out of their current situation, and the way we do that is by expanding educational opportunities throughout this state – starting with universal Pre-K and moving all the way up to providing more opportunities for high school students to attain technical certifications while in school.

We also must provide more practical training to our state’s teachers.  As an educator who has worked in secondary and higher education in schools in southwest and central Arkansas for over fourteen years, I can personally attest to the profound lack of meaningful professional development opportunities for educators in this state.  All too often, legislative bodies allot millions of dollars to outsource professional development by bringing in so-called “expert” educational companies or motivational speakers to provide a two-hour training session that is a waste of both taxpayer money and teachers’ time.  We have to do a better job of teaching our teachers, and the answer is surprisingly simpler than you might think.  The best and most unused resource for training teachers is teachers themselves.  There is no professional development money can buy that can replace the vast wealth of knowledge that already exists in the employees of institutions of secondary and higher education.

In 2013, the Economic Policy Institute found that “providing expanded access to high quality education will not only expand economic opportunity for residents, but will likely do more to strengthen the overall state economy than anything else a state government can do.”  The implications are clear: In order to strengthen Arkansas’ economy and boost wages for our people, we must recommit ourselves to providing the best quality education we can, and that means investing in our educators and doing more to provide early educational opportunities for our students.  We cannot afford to wait.

Our people are hurting, and we need legislators who are focused on helping Arkansas families achieve more, do more, and be more.  The time is now.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.


On Guns in America

This morning, we woke up to the news of one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.  Sadly, shielding my three-year-old daughter from this and other news is commonplace in my home.  In the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy, we can expect the debate on gun control to rage on social media, and rightfully so.  Now is the time to talk about responsible gun laws. We cannot allow one more innocent person to lose their life when there are steps we can take to help prevent it.

First, let me say that I am a proud gun owner, and I believe strongly in the constitutional right of all Arkansans to protect themselves and their family.  But I also believe in common sense gun laws.  The two do not negate each other. It is possible to take common sense steps to reduce accidents and crime while still protecting our right to bear arms.

The first thing we can and must do is provide better education on gun safety storage to raise awareness about firearm accidents that claim the lives of our children. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, American children “face substantial risk of exposure to firearm injury and death.”  In fact, a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in conjunction with the University of Texas found that more than three children per day die in the United States due to guns.  We must provide stronger education on how to store guns safely in homes with children.

We also need universal background checks to prevent criminals and terrorists from gaining access to deadly weapons.  Currently, private owners are not required to run background checks before selling their firearms, and unlicensed dealers account for a large percentage of overall gun sales. There is no reason that someone with a criminal history should be able to purchase a firearm. According to a 2014 poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 92% of gun owners support universal background checks. Americans are united on this; universal background checks just make sense.

What it comes down to is this:  Far, far too many people die from gun violence in America.  It’s time that we stop talking about it and act immediately to take legislative steps to help reduce accidents and crime. Because – after all – it’s our tomorrow.

Let’s Talk Healthcare

With the debate swirling in the midst of the GOP attempt to pass the Graham-Cassidy bill before September 30th, it is time to have a frank discussion about how we got where we are today in the conversation surrounding healthcare. History shows us a hard truth: Healthcare has always been the line that divides the haves from the have-nots in this country.

President Harry Truman was one of the very first to fight for a plan for universal health care coverage back in 1945 as part of his Fair Deal.  Had it passed, his plan would have worked much like Social Security does, but his plan was rejected. Nine years later, after Congress rejected the idea of healthcare for all, employers instead took control.  Employers had the power to give benefits only to a certain group of people, which eventually created a two-tiered system where only privileged individuals had access to quality health care. The next few decades brought many changes to our healthcare system, adding Medicare and Medicaid in the 70s and then a shift to private healthcare insurance in the 80s.

But then came President Obama, who was finally able to pass the Affordable Care Act that gave millions of people coverage who previously didn’t have it. The ACA was an attempt to level the playing field, and its benefits have been numerous. It gave protections to those with disabilities and pre-existing conditions.  Over 70% of nursing home residents are now covered by Medicaid, and Medicaid also provides coverage for two out of every five kids in this country. Yet the Republican Party wants to go back to two tiered system that protects only the rich. If we don’t stop them, rural hospitals that have been able to expand services and clinics throughout Arkansas will be the first to close their doors.

Republicans want to gut Medicaid, yet many people in this state don’t even realize that ARKidsFirst is Arkansas’ version of Medicaid. In Garland County this is particularly troubling, as one out of every four of our children and elderly live at or below the poverty line, and 14% of our people still don’t have any insurance at all.  We can drive to our health care clinic where we’ll see people standing in long lines waiting to see a doctor because they don’t enjoy the benefit of private healthcare insurance like their white collar counterparts.

My husband and I have a little girl who’s three years old.  She’s beautiful and smart and the very best thing that’s ever happened to me.  When I look in her eyes, I see the childlike innocence and beauty of everything that can be right in this world. Our children are the generation of tomorrow.  And all of our kids – my daughter, your daughter, your neighbor’s daughter – all of them deserve to grow up in a country knowing that whatever healthcare issue may arise, we invest in them and their health and well-being.

I know the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect and that people are legitimately frustrated with rising healthcare costs, myself included. We all want lower premiums and more money in our pockets from month to month.  The cost of prescription medications is outrageous.  But the answer doesn’t come in the form of block grants; it comes in the form of people reaching across the political aisle to do what’s best for American families.

I believe in the people of this country and I believe in our capacity for goodness and for doing the right thing. And the right thing is caring about each other, lifting one another up, and coming together to tackle the problems of poverty, healthcare, and income inequality.  But somehow we’ve drifted so far from what’s right that THIS is where we are.  And we have to find our way back.  We have to fight, and we have to make our voices heard. And if they refuse to listen, the only thing we have left is our collective vote.  And that vote can be a very powerful thing. 

2018 is coming, and it’s coming soon.  I’ll see you at the polls. 

Because, after all – it’s our tomorrow. 

On the Cost of Child Care

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Arkansas is $4,995, or the equivalent of $416 per month.  For far too many Arkansas families, this cost is an extreme financial burden when coupled with the realities of a mortgage and rising costs of healthcare and prescription medications.  Parents are forced to choose which day care to send their kids to based on cost alone rather than on the quality of the curriculum or staff.  The bottom line is that day care is entirely too expensive for the majority of Arkansas families.

I know.  I have a three-year-old.  My husband and I are educators and the very definition of middle class, yet, like many other families across this country, we struggle with the cost of child care.  In order to make up for the cost of sending our daughter to one of the best facilities in our community, we must make strategic and smart financial decisions. Our day care costs us approximately $550 per month – $6,600 per year – the same cost as average in-state tuition to a four year university.  In short, day care takes a huge chunk out of our budget, and that’s the case for far too many of our friends and family across central and southwest Arkansas.

We also must consider this: Poverty rates in Arkansas are extremely high. 35% of children in Garland County come from homes at or below the poverty line.  Fortunately, many low income families are often eligible for forms of financial assistance for day care and other early childhood education programs.  The problem is that far too many middle class families in Arkansas are ineligible for that same aid because of their income level, yet, just like my family, they too struggle with the astronomical cost of child care programs. Something must be done to level the playing field not just for those kids who come from situations of poverty but also for the many Arkansas families that are ineligible for aid but priced out of private programs.

Nobody debates the fact that early childhood education is a critical factor in predicting future academic success.  The evidence is overwhelming.  The formative years of ages three to five are crucial for setting the stage for how well children will perform in elementary and middle schools.  Moms and dads know that in order for their kids to be successful in life, they must set them up for success from the very beginning.  Yet, sadly, almost half of this country’s three and four year old children are not enrolled in any type of educational program.

The answer is that we must ease the financial burden of childcare for working class families by ensuring that no family pays more than 10% of their annual income for any child care program.  It is critical that we invest in this country’s future and show the American working class that we put families first in the form of child care subsidies and significant tax relief.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that this measure could save the average Arkansas family as much as $1,300 per year – which can make a huge difference in the budget of most families.  But capping childcare costs alone is not enough.  We also must implement a carefully planned and strategic universal preschool program for four-year-old children to ensure that all kids get an equal opportunity to a high quality early childhood education.

There is no greater reward than that of a family, and there is no greater investment than in that of our children. Now is the time to do the right thing by substantially easing the financial burden of child care costs on Arkansas families.  Because, after all – it’s our tomorrow.