LITTLE ROCK — The candidates for Arkansas governor have advanced a variety of different proposals they say would improve education in the state, from expanding early childhood education to emphasizing workforce training to giving more control to school districts.
Expanding the state’s pre-kindergarten program, Arkansas Better Chance, is the major education proposal of former Congressman Mike Ross, generally seen as the front-runner in the Democratic primary.
Ross said last week that if elected he will push for a $37 million increase in annual funding for the state’s pre-kindergarten program over 10 years. He proposed making the program accessible to all 4-year-olds in the state by making it free to families earning less than 300 percent of the poverty level; charging about $70 a week for families earning between 300 and 399 percent of the poverty level; and charging about $140 a week for families earning 400 percent of the federal poverty level or more.
"Children who attend high-quality pre-K are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education or remediation, and more likely to graduate high school. They also have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved with the criminal justice system, meaning investments in pre-K now would help save taxpayers money later," Ross said during a news conference announcing his plan.
The Arkansas Education Association cited Ross’ support for early childhood education when it endorsed his campaign last month.
Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, said Friday his group has not yet taken a position on Ross’ plan but will review it.
"I am troubled by the expanding nanny state, where people expect the government to do more and more of their child rearing for them," Cox said. "We’re going to look at any pre-K programs through that lens."
Ross has not yet unveiled all of his education proposals, but he has said he also supports providing better technology in classrooms; placing a greater emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics; supporting Head Start programs; and strengthening support for career education, community colleges and technical schools.
Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, widely seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has proposed creating eight regional Workforce Education Councils, each of which would set priorities for workforce training based on the needs of its region. The councils would create plans that coordinate workforce training from high school to career, which Hutchinson says has not been done in Arkansas before.
Hutchinson’s plan calls for about $34 million a year that the state has been distributing to two-year colleges to be directed instead to specific and approved training programs. He has called the current workforce-training system inefficient.
"I want to attract industry, and I want to build our manufacturing base," Hutchinson said during a news conference last month. "Manufacturing is coming back to the United States of America, and Arkansas will be a part of that and will compete for that."
Bill Stovall, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges, said last month of Hutchinson’s plan, "We have strong concerns about the redistribution of dollars from an already underfunded system."
Hutchinson also has proposed developing a computer science curriculum for high school students and improving computer science education for teachers.
Businessman Curtis Coleman, Hutchinson’s opponent in the GOP primary, has said he favors giving local schools more control, including allowing local school administrators and school boards to award high-performing teachers with merit pay and fire low-performing teachers; decide what standardized tests to use; choose their curricula; and decide which federal programs, if any, to implement.
He also favors repealing the state law that requires consolidation of school districts that fall below 350 students for two consecutive years.
Coleman said he wants to give parents more choice and ensure that dollars follow the students wherever they go.
"School choice can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships and individual tax credits/deductions," reads a statement on Coleman’s website. "School choice must encompass a variety of options including public schools, private schools, charter schools, homeschooling and online learning."
Coleman has proposed creating partnerships between two-year colleges and high schools to offer workforce training as early as 10th grade. His plan would increase funding for two-year colleges by $42 million a year, with half of the money coming from four-year colleges and universities and the other half from the state Department of Education.
Coleman has said education would be one of his budget priorities but would be secondary to his top priority, cutting taxes.
"That concerns us very much," said Kristen Craig Garner, attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association."We would be very concerned about tax cuts that affect general revenue. Currently, education is the top funding priority for the state. We would be very concerned about cuts to education — and anything that affected general revenue which would lead to cuts to education."
Substitute teacher Lynette "Doc" Bryant, who is running for governor as a Democrat, said Friday she was still working on specific education proposals. Her website says she supports raises for teachers, fewer restrictions on classroom teachers, more vocational training in high school and a tax break to help families pay college tuition.
"Families often take out additional loans and second mortgages on their homes to pay for college tuition," reads a statement on her website. "Often, their children can not obtain work study programs on campus to supplement parental income. Yet, middle class families play the key role in paying for America’s budget."
Bryant and Coleman oppose the Common Core State Standards, which they say are too restrictive on classroom teachers. Hutchinson has said that as governor he would order a review of the standards, which his website says were adopted "in a hasty and non-reflective manner."
Ross said in an email Friday that he supports the standards, which he said "set benchmarks for what our students need to know in order to compete for the good-paying jobs of the future, not how or what teachers should teach," though he said he does have concerns about how the standards have been implemented in Arkansas and would work to ensure they are implemented "in a way that is fair, flexible and forward thinking."