Unsurprisingly, the RSVP-only event was a pep rally for Sanders and her LEARNS legislation.
LEARNS is a baked cake, so why are Sanders and Oliva traversing the state for feedback on a law that notoriously passed without input from public school educators?
The answer is simple, especially after surveying who attends a LEARNS town hall: lackeys of the governor, Republican legislators, local GOP officials, Americans for Prosperity staff, and members of the recently-designated extremist group Moms for Liberty.
Every LEARNS town hall requires attendees to sign up via an RSVP link, but the signup page is not public. That’s because the link is passed around via invitation; maybe a few educators here and there end up with the link, but the vast majority of attendees are supporters of the governor and LEARNS. This is, of course, by design so Sanders and Oliva can field softball questions and repeat tired and false LEARNS talking points.
When Senator Bart Hester opened the town hall, he said its purpose was to get “the communities wrapped around the direction” lawmakers and the governor want. He also said that questions were not planted (several were), that all ideas were welcomed (they weren’t), and that they truly appreciate teachers and administrators (he’s on record calling administrators the “enemy”).
Even Governor Sanders joked that Hester was setting up the crowd to test her and Oliva. Everyone laughed, signaling attendees wouldn’t dare scrutinize the governor or her education plan.
But lightly sprinkled throughout the crowd of supporters were LEARNS skeptics, several of whom were public school educators. Joel Lookadoo, the 2020 Arkansas teacher of the year, reminded the governor that state leaders have regularly degraded public school educators. Lookadoo asked how Sanders planned to undo that damage. How would she instead inspire and support educators moving forward?
Sanders’ answer was as empty as her other LEARNS talking points. “We believe in you,” she replied. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have put such a huge emphasis on making sure our teachers are actually respected.”
The answer created some cognitive dissonance, considering Sanders has repeatedly referred to public school teachers as indoctrinators who fail to educate our kids. Sanders’ closest school-choice allies have echoed the accusations and gone a step further, accusing public school teachers of being morally bankrupt and calling their classrooms inferior products.
The governor tried to use teacher pay raises as evidence of her administration’s respect for educators. But Sanders only added raises to her LEARNS agenda after a grassroots movement in demand of teacher pay increases became too loud for lawmakers to ignore. The Pay AR Teachers movement was so successful that both 2022 gubernatorial candidates added teacher pay raises to their policy platforms.
Question four was a soft lob to the governor and came from Nikki Beaver, who works for the Koch-funded group Americans For Prosperity. AFP is neck deep in Arkansas’s school choice movement; the group has hosted several school choice events, like their rally with Sanders at the Capitol. AFP is also running pro-LEARNS television commercials while the law awaits an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling on the bungled emergency clause vote.
Beaver tossed Sanders and Oliva an easy lawsuit question, giving the duo a chance to spout LEARNS propaganda. “I feel confident… that the court will rule in our favor,” Sanders said. “All of the new changes… are on hold because I believe people are trying to play political games with our kids’ future… I’m not going to let that happen.”
We give kudos to the superintendent of Siloam Springs School district, Jody Wiggins, who asked about why the same standards for public schools are not applied to private schools and homeschool that will receive public dollars through vouchers. Oliva supplied a wimpy answer about how LEARNS is a pro-public school policy.
“If I was to push back a little bit, there is going to be accountability for the private school programs. It may not be the same — and I know that’s what you’re going to say — and it may not be there yet and it may get there one day…” Oliva admitted. He continued with more deflections and pro-school choice rhetoric: “We can have this philosophical debate that it should be apples to apples… but we want to make sure those private schools have the autonomy to operate the frameworks that they have set up.”
Somehow Oliva undercut his own accountability argument in a matter of a few sentences. No, the education standards for private schools receiving public dollars through vouchers are not the same as public schools, and those standards have yet to be developed. Admitting it proves vouchers are in fact providing choice for choice’s sake, not so students in need of different educational care can explore quality alternatives.
To soften the blow of Superintendent Wiggins’ question, mic jockey Rep. Delia Haak intentionally called on the University of Arkansas school choice program chair, Dr. Patrick Wolf. You can probably guess he peddled nothing but Sanders’ praise and pro-school choice rhetoric.
Additionally, subsequent questions came from members of the Washington County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a newly minted extremist group that will host an upcoming summit featuring Oliva, Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as speakers. Moms for Liberty is on record stating their desire to take over every level of government by electing their extremist members and pushing their far-right agenda.
But for those serious about public education, LEARNS is a crappy, already baked cake — and the cake makers know it. That’s why regular stakeholders are not invited to the town halls. Instead, the governor’s administration must pack out rooms with campaign supporters and GOP opportunists. The forum is neither serious nor meant to solicit genuine public feedback; it’s a pep rally for pro-LEARNS messaging, Republican hobnobbing, and gaslighting of the opposition.
The cake is baked and it definitely sucks. They’re going to need a lot more fake town halls to sweeten it up.