Anderson says plan proposed by governor exciting ‘on the surface’
Cutter Morning Star School District Superintendent Nancy Anderson says she is excited about Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ new education reform plan, though questions still linger until its full release.
Sanders announced last week the Arkansas LEARNS education plan, which would raise the state’s starting teacher salary to $50,000, and offer students vouchers to attend an outside school district, or a private parochial or home-school.
Currently among the lowest five in the nation, the $14,000 annual starting pay increase would move the state to among the top five in the nation for starting teacher pay. The initiative, an acronym for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and school Safety, would also offer additional resources for literacy and career-readiness and other teacher incentives.
“On the surface, everything looks really exciting with a lot of good changes for education,” Anderson said Monday. “You know, a lot of good support for our teachers in our districts and most importantly for our students. And that’s what we’re all about is students. And so I’m very excited about parts of that. I’m just very anxious to see how that’s going to look for a school district and how things are going to be funded and implemented.”
The voucher “Education Freedom Account” program would be phased in over three years and allow families to choose the school they feel best serves their student. Opponents of the plan fear it may reduce enrollment in public districts.
All seven Garland County school districts remain under a desegregation case settlement agreement, in which a student may transfer to a nonresident district, but only if its enrollment for that student’s race is less than that in their resident district. Although it is still un
clear what the voucher program would mean for Garland County districts, Anderson said she hopes “that we can get through the deseg and get unitary status so we can follow the state law, whatever that might be.”
“To me, if I want to take my child to a school because I think that that school is better for my child, I ought to have that option. And it can be for various different reasons. We have seven great school districts in Garland County, seven, but they’re all different and they all have great things about them. But it’s dependent upon that student,” she said.
She noted that due to technology and other resources available to schools today, schools can have the same offerings no matter what their size.
“I think that’s important, and parents need to know that they do have options and they do have choices,” she said. “And I think that’s what the governor’s wanting for parents. … It’s more about, I guess you would say, competition. You know, you have to perform. If your school’s not performing, you’re not going to get the kids. Because parents are going to have choices, as they should. I believe parents should have choices. And I believe it’s up to us as administrators and educators to provide that environment to where parents want their kids at your school.”
That environment, she noted, is even more important now than we she began her education career 25 years ago. She said she receives calls every day from families who want to transfer their students into the district, but that the only thing hindering growth is the district’s size and lack of housing.
“We’re only 31 square miles,” she said. “We have no housing in our district. I mean, I have people call me, ‘Hey, I want to bring my kid to Cutter,’ and the only way they can get here now is to move into our district. Well, look at the real estate. There’s no homes, there’s no rental properties, you know. We’re hoping that the water issue between the city and the county and all that — that’s been kind of the holdup I understand from developments happening out here in this area — but we’re hoping all of that will be resolved.
“If you look at Hot Springs, it’s developed all around us but it hasn’t been able to develop out this way. And that hurts us because we do have a lot of people, a lot of students, a lot of families that want to be a part of what we’re doing and the way we think and the way we educate and the way we build relationships, the way we care about our kids — they want to be a part of that but there’s nowhere for them to live. So the only other method that they have is through school choice.”
Anderson said she believes the increase in teacher pay will draw more teachers and help counter the issue of shortages across the state. She said it also brings a quality of respect to the profession that she believes is long overdue.
“You know, years ago when you were a teacher you were really highly respected as a profession. And it seems like the respect is not there as it used to be,” she said.
Whereas the district used to have around 150 applicants for an open elementary teacher position, she said, it has gradually dropped to only about a dozen.
“Sometimes now we’re calling people and asking them, ‘Are you interested in coming to talk to us about a job?’” she said. “We’re actually out recruiting. And we’ve never had to do that before at Cutter. We’ve been very lucky with good, strong applicant pools, but we’ve started that process early this year.”
She said she is excited about what is to come for education in Arkansas and looking forward to working with Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and learning about his new ideas.