- Brian Chilson
Rich Nagel retired recently as head of the Arkansas Education Association. He had led the state's largest teacher union, which promotes public education and advocates for teachers, since 2000; prior to that he was a school finance consultant with AEA and from 1975-1981 was executive director of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association (now the Little Rock Education Association). In all, he's devoted 38 years to Arkansas's public schools and policy, from fighting the "teacher test" instituted by then-Gov. Bill Clinton — a "slap in the face" of teachers, he said — to fighting school voucher legislation that would have provided for tax credits to pay tuition at private schools, bills introduced in the last legislative session.
If you measure Arkansas's respect for the teaching profession by pay, the picture isn't good, but it has improved in the past 20 years. Until Clinton created the Education Excellence Trust Fund in 1991, Nagel said, Arkansas "was always competing" for the bottom ranking, coming in at 49th or 50th. The ranking jumped to 42nd in 1992; average teacher pay in 2011-12 was 44th. One of the AEA's greatest challenges is to work to "maintain a high level of support for teachers' salaries," Nagel said.
But Nagel, praised as a "big picture" man by those who've worked with him, believes that "as a general rule, the public still holds teachers in high regard. I think most communities believe it's important for the teaching profession to be compensated" even if they are not sure how to bring it about.
In his Arkansas career, there have been successes for public schools and "huge problems we've avoided." Among the successes: The trust fund, the development of a Code of Ethics for teachers, and a variety of reforms in teacher training, standards and evaluation that are "more appropriate and focused" than the standards passed in 1983 under Clinton.
Until the rise of the "school reform" movement supported by the Walton family's billions — including charter schools and vouchers — the AEA's mission to improve public education was straightforward, and its role significant in bringing about progress. Now, the AEA must contend with the enormous influence that Walton money has over the General Assembly.
Nagel said the AEA tries to find common ground with the Walton's educational lobby. "Where we differ is not in the end result. Everyone wants students to be successful." The difference is "ways of going about it ... We believe there's a role for charter schools, but we don't believe every school should be a charter school."
The AEA supported the initial charter school law as a way to introduce innovative teaching models, and it's Nagel's opinion that the state Board of Education has done a good job of oversight on the schools, though "others think they have failed miserably ... they haven't approved every application that comes along."
But charter schools have not proven themselves to be better than traditional public schools, Nagel said, and can harm both public opinion and financial support for Arkansas's public education. "Every time we accommodate the wishes or desires of a particular group to leave the public schools, the public schools lose," Nagel said.
Nagel said he does not believe that AEA's influence "has waned significantly" despite the attacks on public education. "We're still effective within the General Assembly to maintain high standards for securing a license and for schools," though the AEA spent "far more time" than in previous years working to make sure funding for K-12 and higher education was secure. Most of the AEA's successes in the recent Republican-dominated legislature that adjourned in May were in stopping bad bills. The worst two, in Nagel's view, were a bill by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, to create a private school voucher pool by making contributions to it tax-deductible, and a bill by Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, to divert public dollars to private schools for the "Parental School Choice Scholarship." Alexander's bill had a lengthy preamble characterizing the failure of public schools as a given and criticizing funding by federal dollars for the onus they put on Arkansas to comply with laws "that are not always advantageous to or complementary to the mission of the state." Neither bill got anywhere.
Nagel said the AEA "worked far more with coalitions than we ever have before" to fight broad legislation that would have hurt education, including a bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, to cap state expenditures and the "highway robbery" bill that would have diverted general revenues to highways. The coalition — including Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel — also successfully fought a measure to set up a separate charter school commission that would have taken oversight away from the state Board of Education.
Successes also included bills that became law, including the "private option" to provide health insurance to low wage families — which Nagel said "really was something that was extraordinary for Arkansas to do" — along with Act 1326, the "Whole Child — Whole Community" legislation (Sens. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, David Johnson, D-Little Rock, and Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, and Reps. Warwick Sabin , D-Little Rock, Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, and Frederick Love, D-Little Rock,), and Act 1329, to evaluate the impact of school discipline on student achievement (Chesterfield).
Losses included the tax breaks for the well-to-do ushered in by House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, and the handgun law that allows guns on school campuses, a law roundly rejected by schools.
"The next general election is going to be critically important" to the interests of Arkansas public education, Nagel said. A more conservative legislature would be likely to win the battle over vouchers and public oversight of education. Though he won't be head of the AEA, Nagel is likely to be at the state Capitol in the next session.
That's good, says outgoing AEA president Donna Morey, because, "There's no one who cares more about public schools and children than Rich Nagel."