“I am convinced education in Arkansas is in the beginning stages of ascendancy, and the levels of student success in the next decade will be unprecedented. With strengthened reading instruction through the R.I.S.E. Arkansas initiative, the nationally-recognized success in computer science education, and the development of student success plans for every Arkansas eighth-grader, public school students have more opportunities than ever to be fully prepared for future success.”
– Johnny Key, Arkansas Education Secretary
By Dustin Jayroe | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Any in-depth analysis of a region’s economic and social prosperity will note a direct correlation between the education level of its citizens and access to quality education.
Schools harvest the future of the world and directly impact the most impressionable ages of children’s lives, providing the knowledge and guidance to help better equip them with the tools necessary to face life’s many challenges. And in some cases, teachers spend more time around their students than parents do.
But, education being a broad term, the phrase “well educated” need not refer to traditional schooling at all. Foregoing higher education and entering the workforce straight out of high school — and bypassing the student debt that results from college’s rising tuition rates — is a route chosen by an increasing number of young adults. But it doesn’t mean that education stops with a high school diploma. No matter the vocation, pursuance of education — of learning — will always be a prerequisite for long-term success. That applies to the skilled tradesperson, the doctor or the street sweeper.
When weighing the importance of the various pillars of public policy, there may not be another as massive as education. Arkansas has struggled with education in the past, but progress has been made.
Where We Stand
According to U.S. News & World Report, Arkansas is ranked 42nd in the United States in education, a lower-tier national ranking Arkansans have come to expect.
Breaking down the education rankings further reveals that Arkansas sits at 40th in both primary and secondary education with an 87 percent high-school graduation rate and approximately 31 percent of adults being college-educated.
Johnny Key, Arkansas Education Secretary, says that the largest challenge facing the state is recruiting and retaining highly-effective teachers.
“Research shows, and common sense confirms, that highly-effective teachers are essential to student success,” he says. “Effective teachers lead the learning by working collaboratively with their peers and tailoring their instructional practices to meet the needs of all students.
“To strengthen the teacher pipeline, Arkansas launched the Teach Arkansas campaign in February 2018,” he adds. “The goals of the campaign are to encourage Arkansans to enter the teaching profession, encourage and support current teachers, and encourage those who have left the profession to return.”
Key says the campaign is making “great strides” in providing additional support to educators and growing the number of “Teacher Cadet” programs in Arkansas high schools. In conjunction with this additional support for educators, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently signed legislation into law raising the minimum salary for Arkansas teachers incrementally over a four-year period.
This strategy is not based on hypotheticals; there are numerous examples of studies, both domestic and abroad, that draw correlation between teachers’ wages promoting teacher quality and in turn, student performance.
According to the National Education Association’s latest report from 2018, the average public-school teacher in Arkansas makes $50,544 — 38th in the country and almost $10,000 below the national average. However, many teachers across the state start their careers at the minimum salary of $31,800. After these raise increments, the minimum salary will be $36,000.
Time will tell if these steps are enough to make a long-term difference. But they are, at the very least, on the right track.
Public vs. Private
Given the educational rankings of Arkansas, parents are often tasked with the arduous choice of where to send their kids to school — public or private. The largest factor in the choice being the most obvious: cost.
The average tuition cost for one child to attend a private school in Arkansas is $5,690 per year, according to Private School Review. Broken down based on level, the average cost for private elementary schools is $4,621 per year and $6,670 for private high schools.
Beyond that, it often becomes a compare-and-contrast of the schools themselves.
Four of the top five largest private schools in Arkansas are located in the central Arkansas area, and that is no geographical anomaly. While the Little Rock area contains much of the state’s money and population so, too, does Northwest Arkansas. But in the top-left corner of the state, many more families find contentment sending their children to public school, regardless of income.
This likely can be attributed to the schools of Northwest Arkansas achieving higher metrics, according to the Department of Education’s public school report cards.
Bentonville High School is in one of the largest public school districts in the state and has an “A” rating from the Department of Education. The district’s superintendent, Debbie Jones, says “each parent has to select the right setting for their child. There are so many options for families, especially in Northwest Arkansas. I would, however, inspect the options, closely verifying the credentials of the teachers and the status of the courses. Not all courses are NCAA-approved which presents problems for students wanting to participate in athletics in college.”
On the other side of the coin, Central Arkansas Christian Schools is a private preK-12th grade option located in North Little Rock. Its president, Carter Lambert, says a comparison of high-quality options in different schools may come down to values.
“Many private and public schools in Arkansas provide a quality academic experience,” he says. “Find a school with a mission that is aligned with your family’s values and goals and that genuinely desires to partner with you in meeting your child’s educational and developmental needs. Decisions regarding your child’s education are among the most important decisions you must make.”
One way the state is providing its resources to assist parents in making these decisions is with the launch of the My School Info website, MySchoolInfo.Arkansas.gov, where parents can compare and contrast schools, view the state’s assessment results of that school and its letter grade for each — which aptly range from A-F.
“The ability to readily access this important information helps parents make informed decisions about their child’s educational opportunities,” Key says. “It helps teachers make more informed decisions regarding academic instruction, and it helps policymakers and all education stakeholders have more meaningful discussions about their local schools.”
Is the Four-year Degree Worth It?
“In today’s economy, it is important for Arkansans to know they have options, and even more important for them to understand those options. Decide where you want to go first, because your education is how you’re going to get there. Whether you are looking at a two-year college, four-year college, vocational training, certification, apprenticeship program or no formal higher education, think about the job you expect to have once you’re ready to enter the workforce. Is that job in a high-growth industry? Is that job going to be around 10 years from now? I believe when it comes to your education and your career, you’ve got to begin with the end in mind.”
– Daryl Bassett, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Labor
U.S. News estimates that the average Arkansan graduates college with more than $26,000 in student loan-related debt. While this is a little bit under the national average of $28,650, it is the cause of significant anxieties for Arkansas students contemplating higher education and its worth.
Many consider this a crisis singular to the modern generation, affecting multiple layers of the economy and impacting other major life milestones such as homeownership. So much so, that many young adults question the ROI of a college education. But there’s a potential catch-22: A 2013 study from Georgetown University estimates that 65 percent of future jobs will require some level of post-secondary education. According to College Board’s Trends in Higher Education series, the average income of individuals in 2015 with at least a bachelor’s degree was 67 percent higher than those with just a high school diploma.
The results aren’t specific to full, four-year degrees. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that associate’s degree holders earn an average of $400,000 more over the course of their work careers than those with just a high school diploma. So, despite the mountain of debt many can expect upon graduation, the amount of potential money to be made appears to make some form of higher education worth it.
It is important not to feel hamstrung, however. Arkansas is making progress — the state used to sit at 49th in education. Opportunities now abound in Arkansas, flexible to almost every situation. Virtually every college in the state, two-year and four-year, now offers at least some form of online learning, accommodating all forms of nontraditional students. Many even offer online degrees.
Traditional schooling is not right for everyone, but the evidence suggests that some form of education ensures more stability throughout one’s work career.
“Every student needs to consider some level of education beyond high school,” Key says. “From certificate and apprenticeship programs to two-year and four-year higher education programs, students today have countless opportunities to grow academically and professionally.”
Daryl Bassett, Arkansas Labor Secretary, says that Discover.Arkansas.gov is a valuable tool for those making these important decisions. It provides the resources to “explore data, trends and projections for education, occupations, industries, employment and wages.”
“Arkansans should keep in mind occupational demand, projected demand, the career pathways that may lead to further advancement, and then weigh those considerations against the costs of training to determine the return on investment for a desired training program,” he says.