‘The Iron Triangle’ of Arkansas Education

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” – Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri

“Is there anyone to speak against the bill? The Iron Triangle.” – Senator/Chairman Johnny Key, March 13, 2013, Senate Committee on Education, Little Rock, Arkansas

When Senator Key asked the question, representatives of three organizations rose or raised their hands: Arkansas Association of Education Administrators (AAEA)Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA), and Arkansas Education Association/National Education Association (AEA/NEA). That’s what prompted his twinkle-in-the-eye description of the three organizations which seem to have the most to say on any proposed legislation regarding education.

The ASBA and AAEA are supported primarily by publicly funded dues from Arkansas’s public school districts. The AEA is funded from the payroll deducted dues of its members, collected by school districts, and handed over to the union.

Arkansas Learns is privately funded by the investment of its members (contribute/invest here).

While the leaders of ASBA, AAEA and AEA/NEA frequently testify before the Senate and House Committees on Education, rarely do committee members hear from parents, employers and citizens regarding local and state governance of our public schools. That’s why Arkansas Learns was organized in August, to give individual and collective voice to those truly championing the best interests of students.

As of this writing, ASBA is watching and/or taking positions on 56 bills. AEA/NEA is watching and/or taking positions on 167 bills. And AAEA is watching and/or taking positions on 291 bills.

By contrast, Arkansas Learns is watching and/or taking positions on 17 bills. Of those supported, nearly all are opposed by ASBA, AEA/NEA and/or AAEA.

Understand, no matter how they may position themselves as champions of education, the ASBA’s first priority is its member public school boards, the AAEA’s – its member public administrators, and the AEA/NEA’s – not all teachers, but its public union teachers. In fact, the vast majority of teachers in Arkansas, public and private, are not members of the AEA/NEA.

While the AAEA is homegrown, the ASBA and AEA are affiliates of national organizations. The parent of the latter ranked 10th in the nation last year out of 20,968 organizations contributing to candidates for elective office ($18,534,543).

Frequently testifying before the committees are the public employee representatives of the Arkansas Department of Education, including the director, a gubernatorial appointee. The State Board of Education is also appointed by the Governor.

There are also a handful of public employee superintendents who regularly attend meetings and testify on occasion.

And then there are the lawyers, those suing the state of Arkansas, including the public fund-paid Little Rock School District attorney, and those from the publicly funded Attorney General’s office defending, all with oppositional opinions regarding the legal exposure of the state regarding any action or inaction.

As a freshman advocate, the sausage making process that is public governance has opened my eyes to two realities: 1) the vast majority of those who testify in committee on proposed education legislation are directly, or indirectly, paid by public funds; and 2) if Arkansas Learns is for it, The Iron Triangle is generally agin it. 

Article 14, § 1 of the Arkansas Constitution reads:

“Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the state shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

Where the Iron Triangle seems myopically focused on protecting their definition of “free public schools” (i.e. not charters, not scholarships, not choice), Arkansas Learns keeps its eyes on the results – “intelligence and virtue,” “safeguards of liberty, and the bulwark of a free and good government,” “general, suitable and efficient system” and “all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” 

So since we began two related quotes, let’s conclude with a couple.

“In the councils of government,we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address to Nation, January 17, 1961, Washington, DC

To borrow from President Eisenhower, who had a major role in Arkansas’s education history:

“In the councils of Arkanas government,we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the $5.3 billion, 46% of all general revenue, education-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” – Arkansas Learns, March 21, 2013, Little Rock, Arkansas

If not, the futures of many of our students will vanish, like so many ships and planes in another infamous triangle.

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