I spoke by phone today with Jared Henderson, the former Teach for America state director who announced today that he is running for governor. Henderson said that he had ideas to push Arkansas to have “one of the most dynamic economies and have one of the best education systems in the country.”
Henderson is most passionate, unsurprisingly, speaking about education. We also discussed the relationship between Teach for America and the state’s teacher’s union, which is a vital part of the Democratic base and hasn’t always seen eye to eye with TFA (as well as Henderson’s involvement with a recent $10 million Walton grant for training teachers in high-poverty schools). Plus health care, abortion, guns, Trump (people on both sides are “pretty exhausted hearing about him every second of every day”), and more.
I asked what he would like to see done differently as compared to the Hutchinson administration. “In most areas, I think the way I would characterize myself versus the current administration is just going farther and setting some bolder and more fundamental goals,” he said. He applauded the governor’s computer science education initiative but said that it was a “sliver of what we need to be focusing on to build the type of education system that we need”:
We need an education system that can connect our students with great, unfilled, well-paying technical jobs—but we also need to prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. And if we’re going to build a system like that, we’ve got to go to the fundamentals. And the fundamentals are making sure that there’s an excellent teacher in every room, and that teacher’s well-trained and supported, and that we get regulation and bureaucracy out of his or her way.
This was an urgent issue, Henderson said: “We’ve seen more than a 40 percent decline in people getting in to the teaching profession since 2010.”
Henderson said that the state should also expand programming for pre-k and early childhood learning, “but if I had to champion one central idea that has the most potential to make the biggest difference, it really is helping us celebrate and respect — and increase the attractiveness and sustainability of — the teaching profession. That is the heart of everything. If we get that right, we can make great progress.”
Henderson said that having talked to hundreds of teachers over the last several years, “one thing that I hear over and over again, is that teachers have have just had to spend more and more of their time on administration, bureaucracy, and paperwork. We tried as a nation to manage our teachers to success, by creating systems and evaluation metrics, etc. Many of those things were well-intentioned, but in practice they’re doing more to hold good teachers back than to help struggling teachers improve.”
TFA and the teachers’ union
Henderson said that while he was at Teach for America, it was very common for him to work alongside teachers who were members of the union (and that it was not uncommon for TFA teachers to join their local union). He said that he has not formally been in communication with the Arkansas Education Association about his candidacy but planned to meet with union leaders and members.
There’s no natural animosity, at least from our end. I will say that I am taking no one’s support for granted. I’m going to have to sit down with union leaders and union members, we’re going to have to honest conversations, and I suspect we’re actually going to agree on a whole lot. Just as it happens when any group of smart people sit down, there might be issues where we don’t see completely eye to eye. But I think by and large, we’re going to agree that helping the teaching profession become more attractive and sustainable in this state is something we can really work for together.
The Walton grant
Henderson played a role in planning a project to train teachers in high-poverty schools that will be funded by a $10 million Walton Family Foundation grant. There was some speculation that Henderson might be tapped to lead the project.
I was involved in helping craft the proposal. I’m extremely proud and excited about this work. The whole purpose of this new institution is to focus specifically on the recruitment and training of teachers for our high-needs schools, serving communities that are struggling with all the implications of poverty. I think it could be one of the most important educational focal points and institutions that we do as a state in the coming years and I’m proud to see it unfold.
The grant has been made to the U of A and it will be up to them to what extent I’m involved. But at a minimum I intend to give every bit of my spare time doing anything they ask me to help because I believe in the purpose of the institution.
Regarding the rumors that Henderson could be a candidate to take a leadership role with the program, he said:
In theory I would love to do it and if I weren’t running for governor, I would be doing everything in my power to apply for a role in that institution. Now that I’m getting started with this candidacy, we’ll have to see how it rolls out. The university is going to have to go through a thorough and open hiring process; I would be surprised if there’s not a number of people applying for the jobs in that institution, so we’ll just have to see.
Asked about the governor’s proposal to amend the state’s Medicaid program — including adding work requirements and removing more than 60,000 Arkansans from the rolls by limiting eligibility — Henderson said that he wanted to study the governor’s proposal more closely but said, “in general I am skeptical of rolling back insurance for health care.”
Henderson applauded gains in northwest and central Arkansas but said that rural areas of the state needed “practical and creative ideas to really change the game there.”
One of the opportunities I see that we could do is really promote small business development. Making education about how to start and run a small business available to high school students and adults, and helping him them understand the basic technical no-how they need, the skills and relationships they need to have, and even giving them access to seed capital. There are people in Dumas and Blytheville and Helena, and every rural community in this state, that have the work ethic and initiative … but most people don’t have the core basics to give their business a chance to succeed or even get off the ground.
I was born to an unmarried teenage mother almost 40 years ago here in central Arkansas, and she gave me up for adoption right after I was born. This is something I’ve thought about for many years. I’ve thought about it as a human being, not a brand new politician.
I want abortion to be as rare as we can make it. But in the cases of rape, incest and health of the mother — and certainly early in the pregnancy — I do think the decision needs to be the woman’s, with whatever group of family members, doctors, and ministers she can bring in to her circle to make the best possible decision.
But I hope as a state — this debate is going to go on for many years because there are passionate, good people on both sides — but there are some things we can come together to do to reduce the need for abortion altogether in the state.
Like many Arkansans, virtually every member of my family owns guns, and I think the Second Amendment is unambiguously clear — that that’s our right as Americans, whether it’s for hunting or sport or just because.
On the particular issue of the campus carry, my biggest problem with that is we passed an initial law and gave localities the right to make the decision themselves, they made the decision, and then we overruled them. That feels wrong to me. That’s not a Second Amendment stance, that’s just a state versus local control stance.
On the uphill battle running as a Democrat in a red state against a popular incumbent governor.
History shows over and over again that nothing is impossible in politics. Twenty-five years ago a guy a little bit older than me ran for an even bigger office against someone with 85 percent approval rating when he declared. In the last year all sorts of things have happened that no one ever thought was possible.
I have never seen people more demoralized and disheartened by the political climate in this country right now. That’s people that are on the left, people that are on the right, people that are Trump supporters, people that are not. I just don’t believe it has to be that way. I want to take the biggest step that I can to be a positive and constructive voice, and I think running against this governor, we can have a contest of ideas between two decent people that undeniably care about this state. Let’s push the debate forward and make the state and the political climate better for it.
We had a Democratic governor leave office three years ago with huge approval ratings. Most of the electorate that is living today and that will be voting in this election has cast ballots for Democrats. To make it happen again, though, I’m going to have to earn their trust.
I will make absolutely no predictions as far as Donald Trump is concerned, I think he is utterly unpredictable. But as policy or actions come out of Washington that effect the issues we care about in this campaign and this state, I will absolutely speak frankly and candidly about them.
I have not been pleased with his conduct or his policy so far. I’m very glad that the health care bills that he got behind didn’t pass, and I think that if it clears conference in its current forms, the tax bill that they’re passing is a huge missed opportunity to improve our system.
When we don’t have to bring the president in, we won’t. Because the other thing I hear from everyone, whether they support him or not, is that they’re pretty exhausted hearing about him every second of every day. Let’s bring him up when it’s useful, not when there’s an event to react to.