I’ve spent my entire career in the field of education. It is the great equalizer – the one thing that we can give our children that lasts for generations. I loved teaching and saw the impact of education on children’s lives. But I soon realized I could have a greater impact in the policy field, so I got a job in the governor’s office. I still remember the day when Governor Bill Clinton announced that his wife, Arkansas First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, would chair the 15-member Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission that was authorized by The Quality Education Act of 1983 to completely overhaul the Arkansas public education system by improving standards of learning. The message sent to the citizens of Arkansas was very clear: This Governor took seriously the role of education in improving the lives of children and their families across the state.
Governor Clinton was criticized by many who were holding fast to the past, those who knew well that Hillary would not rest until the work was done with high energy and a palpable devotion to the needs of Arkansas’ children and young people, especially those most marginalized by the lack of access to quality education.
It is important to understand the context in which Hillary and the Commission started their work. In 1983 there were 365 school districts in Arkansas and according to the Arkansas Department of Education at the time:
• 192 school districts offered no art classes
• 187 school districts offered no chemistry classes and had no classroom labs
• 167 school districts offered no physics classes
• 118 school districts offered no advanced math classes
• 163 school districts offered no foreign language classes
Looking back today, it is almost incomprehensible that so many of Arkansas’s school children in 1983 were starting with such a severe disadvantage compared to those in other states. Because of the leadership of former Mississippi Governor William Winter, we in Arkansas could no longer express the standard axiom “thank God for Mississippi.”
I remember vividly when Hillary presented the Commission’s final report to the Arkansas General Assembly. One of Governor Clinton’s most animated critics said, “I think we elected the wrong Clinton Governor.”
The Commission established educational standards goals for the first time in the history of Arkansas’ public school system. Curriculum content guides were developed in partnership with scholars, teachers and parents. Each school district was required to offer music, art, foreign languages, advanced math and science, computer science, additional years of language arts, social studies, physical education and the practical arts. Class size was reduced to 20 in Kindergarten, to 23 in grades 1-3, and 25 in grades 4-6. Academic secondary classes were limited to 30 students per class. Sixth graders would be tested in Reading, Language Arts, Math, and Social Studies. Students who did not perform up to standards had to be supported by a special academic development plan that included an extended school day or year as appropriate. Additionally, students struggling were supported by additional counselors, a supportive alternative curriculum, and the use of other resources. The new standards were bold for their time and included proposals for global education and a student service requirement long before these ideas were popular.
These details were important and set the stage for bipartisan efforts across the United States to improve the educational lives of our children. Republicans and Democrats alike joined an important educational bandwagon that helped establish the role of the modern governor in educational policy. Along with William Winter, Lamar Alexander, Jim Hunt, Tom Kean, Mike Castle and others, Governor Clinton – with the able guidance of Hillary – helped establish the notion of “education governor.”
There is another part of this story that is important. Governor Clinton and Hillary took time to listen to the citizens of Arkansas, to engage them in the details and struggles of education inequality. Hearings were held in all 75 Arkansas counties. In many ways, it was the citizens of Arkansas who rose to the challenge of improving the educational lives of Arkansas children.
Without the able leadership of the Governor and his wife, I am certain the outcomes would have been different. I certainly recognized very early that Hillary was brilliant and was devoted to improving the lives of children. It was no surprise to me that she would be one of the most able First Lady’s in United States’ history and later a Senator and Secretary of State — all accomplishments that easily fill a lifetime of great achievement.
But for me, Hillary’s pathway to success, through hard work and a deep devotion to the power of education to transform the world, started in Arkansas.
(Don Ernst is an instructor of education policy at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and serves as coordinator of the Children and Youth Initiative at the Central Arkansas Library System. He previously served as director of education policy in the office of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.)