By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The elected official in the state Capitol making the biggest impact next year will be Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson. The second most impactful elected official may be a 74-year-old grandmother with an agenda.
That would be Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock.
English spent her career in economic development and will use her chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee to try to change how Arkansas educates and develops its workers. She says the education system is composed of too many disconnected silos – K-12 public schools over here, colleges and universities over there, career education in a third spot, etc. – that don’t always prepare students for the workforce.
“We typically think of education as K through 12, but for me, education is K through job,” she said after selecting the chairmanship.
She wants to reform a system that did not serve the state well enough during her career in economic development. There’s also this motivation: “I have a 17-year-old granddaughter, straight A student, takes AP (Advanced Placement) courses,” she said in an interview Dec. 12. “She’s going to play softball with the Lady Razorbacks. Well, she’s fine with this whole pattern. But then I have a grandson, that may not work for him. I had a grandson, and it didn’t work for him at all. He was not an AP person. He was never going to college, but he has a good career now.”
English is not the first or the only one making this point. Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller would say the education system is like a string of water pipes laid end to end but not fastened together. Hutchinson talked a lot about workforce development in the gubernatorial campaign. In September, the State Chamber of Commerce hosted a summit highlighting the need for Arkansas’ education system to be more responsive to the job market.
Changes already are occurring, particularly at the local level, to make the system more connected and responsive. Many high schools offer students opportunities to earn significant college credit. Bearden High School students are bussed to Southern Arkansas University Tech each day for academic and career classes. At Maumelle High, students basically select a major and take classes that are tailored to their interests and that prepare them for a job. Colleges and universities are becoming more responsive to workforce needs. The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, for example, created a robotics program after surveying local industries and discovering a surprising number needed training in that area.
Despite these individual successes, Arkansas needs a more comprehensive overall strategy, a reallocation of resources, and a different mindset. And that’s where English has become a pivotal figure. In February, she switched her vote on the private option – until then, one vote short of passage in the Senate – from no to yes in exchange for a commitment from Gov. Mike Beebe to focus on the issue. As a result, for much of the year she chaired weekly meetings each Monday with various state education and economic development officials. Shane Broadway, director of the Department of Higher Education, says one of his staff members jokingly referred to the meetings as “English class.”
English said the meetings have produced no concrete proposals, though she has some ideas. She said many of the needed changes don’t require legislation.
Whatever the Legislature passes will be the result of collaboration and compromise. English’s main role will be to continue doing what she has already done: serve as a catalyst. Broadway said state agency heads were already discussing the need for changes, but English’s switched vote was the spark. As she explained it, “Sometimes you have to have something wild that starts things in motion and gets people to start talking. Otherwise, you’re just churning around forever and ever.”
The private option, prisons, and other issues will get the most attention this session. But, quietly, significant workforce development changes could occur. The facts are clear, the need is obvious, and the agreement is broad. Too many students aren’t being prepared for actual jobs, while too many jobs are unfilled because workers with the right skills aren’t available.
Now the Senate Education Committee is headed by someone whose top priority is doing something about it. We’ll see if the other legislators speak English’s language.