Arkansas State Senator Jimmy Jeffress knows something about education. After almost 30 years as an instructor in the Arkansas public school system, he now tackles the issue as a member of the Arkansas Senate Education Committee. PT talks with Senator Jeffress about his views on educational equality.
PT: Some people argue that a distorted view of what equality actually means generally results in distorted policies that are meant to reflect its principles. Would you agree with that assertion when it comes to educational policy?
Jeffress: Not exactly. I think your equality of outcome is going to be a direct result of what you put into it. Here in Arkansas, there's a general consensus that we want the best tools and resources for our children, the best teachers in the classroom and everything else to be in place for them so that they can secure a well-rounded education, be able to enter the work force, support themselves and become a contributing member of society. I don't think anything has ever changed in that regard.
PT: But haven't we viewed some types of education as "more equal" than others and funded them as such in the past?
Jeffress: Well, yes, I think so. I'm a retired school teacher myself, and as a teacher, I sensed that we were putting forth more effort toward those students who were going to college rather than trying to help everybody, sometimes to the detriment of those who were going to pursue technical or vocational training.
But in the past few years, especially the years I've spent in the legislature, we've focused on really broadening our approach. Whether someone is going to college or going on to pursue something else, they still have to have the basics. Therefore, we're trying to make sure that every student is required to take the core curriculum with very little in the way of an opt-out provision. And I tend to support that. I think that vocational students are sometimes looked upon as second-class students that can't do the tough work, but they can, and they shouldn't be regarded as unequal.
PT: From your perspective as a former teacher, what has changed most significantly—for better or for worse—in the Arkansas educational system?
Jeffress: We're putting more of our resources toward ensuring equality in our public education system. We've almost doubled the amount of funding we allocate to education over the past five years, and we're not done yet. During the current legislative session, we're working to ensure equality of facilities across the state. So, we're going to spend some major dollars in that area.
We've had some folks say, "We've already met the mandate and met the minimum requirements, so let's stop and move on to something else," but I disagree. Why do just the minimum when you can do much better?
PT: Should the federal government play a role in educational policy, and if so, what should that role be?
Jeffress: I would like to have the federal government give us a mandate on curriculum and everything else that everyone has to do. I'd like to see more standardization across the nation in what we're trying to accomplish. That way there's no doubt about what's expected. I'd like to see a little clearer definition of what the goals actually are, but we're doing the best we can with what we've been given.
No Child Left Behind is one of the most confusing, confounding things out there as far as educational policy goes, but I think it's a worthwhile cause. It's got a lot of shortcomings, but ultimately I think it's going to be good for the country and I support the mandate.
PT: If you had a free hand to fix NCLB, what would you do to make it better?
Jeffress: Well, I don't completely subscribe to the notion that just because you pour dollars into something it's going to make it better, but then again, you can't do something if you don't have the funding to do it. So, I'd like to see funding levels increased and some accountability standards put in so we know what we're getting for our money.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
Arkansas State Senator Jimmy Jeffress represents Arkansas' 24th Senate District. He serves on eight committees, including the Senate Education Committee.