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LEARNS rhetoric ignores real issues by Shelley Smith Special to the Democrat-Gazette | June 1, 2023 at 2:53 a.m.

R hetoric versus reality. In the current political environment that is heavy on massaging words and light on speaking plainly, it is hard to know which one we are hearing. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the realm of education.

I have often wondered how superintendents are adjusting to flying blindly into the unknown LEARNS landscape. A few weeks ago, I shared thoughts from a variety of stakeholders. This a deeper dive into the views of school administrators.

I created a short survey which was sent to public school superintendents. These individuals must walk a fine line between their employees, students, school boards, communities, the public, the Department of Education, and the Legislature.

It is a very sad reality that people remain silent because they fear repercussions from state leaders. For this reason, there is no identifying information attached to the results.

All regions of the state are represented, and 76.9 percent of the responses came from districts with enrollments of between 350 and 1,500. This is the group most at risk of financial distress or losing staff as a result of the new law. Approximately 70 percent of all districts in the state also fall into the same range, according to Arkansas Department of Education data.

69.3 percent have not yet made decisions about cutting positions, or have already laid off employees.

55.1 percent will not receive adequate state funds to cover the required $50,000 salary for teachers.

75.6 percent do not have adequate funds to increase the salary steps for veteran teachers and those with advanced degrees.

55.1 percent are not confident that future funding from the state will be sufficient to maintain a competitive salary schedule for licensed and classified staff; 41 percent are unsure.

39.7 percent support the effort being made to put LEARNS on the 2024 ballot; 37.2 percent are unsure.

Their comments reveal much frustration and ambivalence.

"In a nutshell, I feel this is an elitist, wealth-oriented action designed ultimately to greatly reduce the number of public school districts in Arkansas."

"The rhetoric used by those in [Little Rock] made no sense. Jacob Oliva was talking about how this legislation was about saving public education, while the governor was talking about how this legislation was to save parents, students, and others from public education."

"Superintendents had almost no say at all in any of this legislation."

"And small rural districts are again having to fight for teachers when we can only pay at the most $55,000. There needs to be a statewide salary schedule and districts cannot deviate from it."

"I'm a little in shock by how much we are short in funding to meet the required increases. Over $200,000 in salary costs that are unfunded, which is a ton for a small district such as ourselves."

"I hate this new LEARNS Act and, as a superintendent, I'm scared for my school."

"My biggest concern about the LEARNS Act is the unfunded mandates."

"High-poverty districts like ours have low property values. We need a statewide millage rate to help even the playing field."

"A focus of LEARNS is listed as early childhood education, yet the state and governor are not providing any additional funding for districts' Pre-K teachers, staff or students."

"I am afraid if the veto were to happen, it would be a bigger mess than what we are dealing with."

"For No. 3 I answered 'I don't know' because we haven't seen the money yet. It's all only preliminary."

T he superintendents who have made these statements are not radical leftists. They are committed school leaders who have undoubtedly lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out how they will keep their districts intact as they try to follow the new law ... if it remains a law.

Hubris walks hand-in-hand with rhetoric. The problem with hubris is that people are so blinded by arrogance that they refuse see the downside of their bad decisions.

Bulldozing an omnibus bill through the Legislature, social media-shaming those who speak against it, and ignoring all other ideas leads to a downward spiral of unintended consequences. It probably never occurred to the sponsors that any part of it might be challenged in court. If one part is challenged, all of it goes to court. Oops.

It is extremely unwise to label concerned citizens as "adults with political motives." When the education commissioner, in his official capacity, using an ADE social media account, accuses citizens of standing in the way of progress, we have reached a whole new circle of hell. If he had lived here long enough to actually know those people, he would understand how ridiculous a label that is. Opposition to the law comes from all parts of the ideological spectrum.

Dante might point at the sign that says "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." But we cannot abandon hope.

The rhetoric you hear is a lie. Nobody is fighting for the status quo, nor for failing schools. Students need someone to fight for their right to free and fair public education, not for the rights of a few to usurp public tax dollars to pay for their elitist private education.

A state as beautiful and diverse as Arkansas should not be subjected to the silly games of a small group of humans. The land and its people deserve respect. The consequences of this lack of respect fall squarely on those shoveling rhetoric, not the ones fighting back. That is reality.

Regnat populus, y'all.

Shelley Smith of Fox is a retired teacher.

Print Headline: Face reality


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