I am often asked what drives me to fight so hard for public schools. The people who ask me this are usually introspective types who read books like Finding Your Why by Simon Sinek, or perhaps Pastor Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. I recommend both of those books as well as a fair amount of introspection. And I love people who ask me honest questions. But I am never asked that question by public school teachers; they already know. Because every public school teacher knows a James.

James grew up in an old clapboard house his father inherited from his father, on land they did not own but were allowed to farm. He was the oldest of 4 children. His mother was a homemaker and his father a driller for the gas company. His few clothes were patched and his hair was often greasy. He slept with his siblings in a cold, drafty room with a high ceiling under a pile of quilts.

For a child in poverty, James was pretty well-fed. His father grew a huge garden, and they raised their own beef and hogs. They gathered eggs from hardworking hens. James had a BB gun by the time he was 4 and hunted squirrels with his uncle. His mother fried them up just like chicken to eat with mashed potatoes and gravy.

James also scoured the Ozark Mountains for rabbits and quail that the family ate. He fished in the Arkansas River for their supper. A few years later he would hunt deer and learn to dress it himself.

On his first day of school, James wore a shirt his mother made him. She dropped him off at the Cecil schoolhouse, which had 2 classrooms. James was with grades 1 though 4, and the class next door had 5th-7th. Between the 2 classes there were 97 students. 97 for 2 teachers.

James cried all day. He didn’t know anyone. He didn’t even know how to tie his shoes. He did know the alphabet because his mother taught him.

James says his 1st grade teacher was nice, but it’s the teacher next door, Mrs. Lyla Crawford, who made a bigger difference in his life. I guess she had bus duty because when the last bell rang, Mrs. Crawford noticed how sad and scared he was while waiting for the bus. So she took his little hand in hers and walked onto that bus with him and sat down. She patted the seat for him to sit beside her. And as mile after country mile passed James snuggled up next to Mrs. Crawford. He even laughed a little bit while they talked. And when he got off the bus, James told his mother he loved school.

Our state government holds in its hands
the power to change the lives of children like James every day,
which in turn changes the lives of their families for generations.
It is a sacred privilege and responsibility.

James went on to County Line for high school, and then to Arkansas Tech, the only one in his family ever to go to college. After that he earned his master’s degree at the University of Arkansas. The world opened up to him and he became a history teacher, bus driver, junior high principal, then an assistant superintendent. I guess he really did love school because he gave 40 years of his life to educating children in public schools in Arkansas.

But that’s not all he did.

James is my dad. I am living proof of how public school — and specifically the teachers a child encounters there — can change the trajectory of a person’s life. And it is never just that one person. In our case, my dad’s education changed what my brother’s and my life would have been and is still changing the lives of his seven grandchildren.

Every public school teacher has taught a James. And I say public school teacher because public schools are the ones who serve the children in poverty all over this state. At the end of the day, James is why we fight for teacher raises to recruit and retain people fleeing our profession. He is why we fought the LEARNS Act. We know that vouchers won’t fix education because vouchers don’t fix poverty — they just exacerbate it. And when public schools are hurt, James gets hurt. James, and all of the children like him, as well as all of the other lives their lives touch for better or worse in the future. 

I fight for public schools because it is personal to me. Our state government holds in its hands the power to change the lives of children like James every day, which in turn changes the lives of their families for generations. It is a sacred privilege and responsibility. But instead of addressing the poverty that plagues our schools and communities, our lawmakers deliberately choose to leave children like James behind, for their own personal gain.

This is not okay.

We are the ones who stand between a corrupted government and our children. We are the Lyla Crawfords, the ones who see them and refuse to leave them behind. And we are not going away.

Elections are in 2024. And actions have consequences. Just like when we give out report cards and a student has failed to do what we asked—they fail the class. Arkansas Strong is keeping track of the legislators who ignore their teachers. They are failing our state.

There are 30,000 teachers in this state and every one of us has a sphere of influence. Families, students, and parents who support us; communities that depend on us to lead. If we stick together and vote, we can decide who represents us, ousting the ones who have failed Arkansas.

This is a long game. And we are in it to win it — for the sake of our kids, and for generations to come.