Young scholars need research connections

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Among many concerns afforded by the LEARNS Act, the chilling effect regulations imposed by the Arkansas Department of Education will have on curriculum development posits. Speculation notwithstanding, the legislation crafted by outside interests and rushed through the Arkansas General Assembly allows the department wide latitude to promulgate rules to manifest the law's intent.

There has, since its passage, been speculation that Gov. Sarah Sanders and education secretary Jacob Oliva would engage in much more than implementing a voucher program that pays wealthy families a subsidy to send their kids to private schools they already attend.

To that end, Sanders has encouraged an intervention in Arkansas' public libraries by appointing former Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert to the state library board. He declared himself the "conscience of the library board," tried to defund libraries at odds with the governor, and failing at that, sent libraries a list of 30 books he found objectionable.

It follows the path taken by Sanders and Oliva to assail "indoctrination" and "critical race theory" by altering the way Arkansas' students are taught, particularly when it comes to the resources that are available to them to engage in research, conceptual understanding, and academic mastery. The governor's desire is to root out intellectualism in Arkansas education and replace it, ironically, with a state-sanctioned doctrinal view of history that grossly misrepresents what happened and why.

This poses a considerable disadvantage to students, teachers, and our state's future. Perhaps that is the point. For a long time, the Republican Party has correlated education with elitism; today, the GOP's path to victory requires a predominantly white male-centric electorate without a college degree.

Sanders is aware of this, which is perhaps why Arkansas no longer encourages educators to rely on the Library of Congress, the American Bar Association, the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, scholarly repositories at Yale and Brown universities, and National Geographic magazine.

Each one of those resources provides considerable value to researchers, scholars, and educators, all of whom populate Arkansas' education system. The Butler Center and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas are extraordinary on their own and offer an abundance of knowledge that allow for Arkansas students to learn about the history of our state, which is also rife, like all others, with complexity, contradiction, and conflict.

To be sure, there are periods of Arkansas' past that are horrific, but encouraging young scholars to lean into the discomfort of that history is essential; critical thinking and conceptual understanding helps mitigate repetition of those societal sins.

Governor Sanders has launched a culture war in Arkansas that rivals the alienating years of Orval Faubus. Teachers, librarians, women, persons of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community have been subjected to the cruelty of her punitive political agenda. These sentiments, rooted in generational attitudes about racial and economic superiority, portend a pernicious outcome that defies human dignity.

In education, anxiety about the rule-making process at the Department of Education will continue throughout the summer. Their declarations will be draconian to adhere to the governor's political will of rooting out "indoctrination" and "critical race theory."

Former president Donald Trump said he loved "the poorly educated," and his former press secretary Governor Sanders has adhered to his dicta and sought to diminish the quality of education in our schools, first by starving public schools of money, then by chilling what happens in their classrooms.

Despite the LEARNS Act, teachers remain drastically underpaid in Arkansas, and are now cognizant that politics works against them. In affluent Bentonville, for example, an innovative measure to fund affordable housing for teachers who struggle trying to make ends meet in a rapidly accelerating economy failed before the city council. Republican state legislators across northwest Arkansas also opposed that effort, inexplicably.

Taken together, it communicated to Bentonville teachers that they are not valued while living and teaching in one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the United States where high-quality education is expected. Furthermore, a vast majority of teachers are women, which says something more about a patriarchy that believes women will keep teaching regardless of the extensive financial pressure placed upon them.

That is bizarre, but it is also consistent with the current GOP approach to education in our state.

Turning back the clock in Arkansas is a losing strategy, economically and politically.

Yet the LEARNS Act is admired in part because it subsidizes wealthy families for a private education they had already planned to pay for. One of the truths of voucher programs nationwide is that, according to The Wall Street Journal, "a vast majority of parents taking advantage of these tuition coupons are those who already send their kids to private schools." The affluent reap a reward at the expense of the everyday taxpayer.

This comes as our vulnerable citizenry, particularly the impoverished, children, women, and the elderly, remain in desperate need of health and human services. In that regard, a volatile state budget does not compel confidence. Consider, for example, that private school vouchers like those imposed in Arkansas are expected to cost Iowa taxpayers an unanticipated $345 million to cover their program this upcoming year. To what end?

Despite the mendacity that pervades our state's political ecosystem, Arkansas is not a laboratory for the wealthy and the far right to test their self-interested policy prerogatives. Fallacies, like those that substantiated the passage of the LEARNS Act, necessitates a discerning electorate prepared to place the common good above that of the few.

That time is now.

Blake Rutherford teaches U.S. government and economics in Bentonville. He can be reached at [email protected].

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