"Nobody can question my commitment to public education." That's what Gov. Mike Huckabee said when he vetoed legislation that would have barred public bond financing for private schools, such as Pulaski Academy.
Huckabee's own children have attended public schools. He opposed ruinous proposals to destroy the property tax. It's also true that he hasn't moved forcefully enough to suit school voucher proponents.
But public school advocates still have doubts, with some reason. He quietly opposed some school improvement legislation. He's insulted the Arkansas Education Association. He vetoed the private school bond ban, in keeping with the interests of his chief fund-raiser and his campaign manager, both patrons of Pulaski Academy.
Then there's the lingering matter of the governor's very first appointment to the state Board of Education -- JoNell Caldwell of Bryant. She has three children -- 10, 17 and 20 -- none of whom has been educated in an Arkansas public school, unless you count the University of Arkansas. They've been home schooled or schooled in upper grades at private Pulaski Academy (her husband, a college roommate of the governor, is the campaign manager mentioned earlier.)
Caldwell's term on the Board is about to end. Public school advocates think she shouldn't be reappointed. She says she doesn't know the governor's plans, but says she'd be happy to continue to serve.
Caldwell defends herself with gusto. "I am very pro-education," she says. "I get real defensive when people put down public education."
Caldwell had a public school education in Little Rock. Her mother, Little Rock elementary school teacher Jimmie Nell Johnson, was the Arkansas Teacher of the Year in 1969.
From the beginning, though, Caldwell has schooled her own children at home. The number of home schoolers was much smaller when she started. People who made that choice were often viewed with suspicion; home school support networks hadn't grown to today's extent. "It was just a real personal choice," she says now. "It was a decision I made with my husband. But I'm definitely not opposed at all to putting children in public education."
Caldwell says she encountered hostility to home schooling when she inquired about the public school enrollment for one child (not in the Little Rock district). That encounter played a role in limiting her search for secondary schools, when the time came, to private schools.
Some public school advocates simply can't see past a school director who rejected public schools without ever trying them. Caldwell simply insists no inferences about public schools should be drawn from her personal decisions. "I've always looked at all my options and looked at the individual child. This is what I want for all education. I want every avenue we have to be the best. I want everybody to be proud of the public schools."
It's that wish, she says, that motivates her desire to continue serving. You have to like her odds.