By Yohuru Williams, Ph.D.
Last week Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel rejected a controversial plan to arm teachers in Clarksville, Arkansas. While leaving the door open for a new state statute that might authorize such a move in the future, McDaniel disallowed the proposal based on current state law. The plan, like many others, in development and or operation around the nation, was a response to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, that claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 adults shortly before Christmas 2012. The massacre plunged the nation into mourning and a long overdue discussion about gun control. In response to the shooting, for instance, NRA chief, Wayne LaPierre called for armed police in public schools. Critics, including a large number of educators, rejected the idea as excessive, unnecessary, and dangerous. The timing of the failed Clarksville measure raises other issue for consideration, however.
At a time when educators in school districts from Illinois to North Carolina are fighting budget cuts and administrative changes that threaten to gut public education, as we know it, the focus on arming teachers is a long way from the type of educational reform and advocacy for which teachers have been asking. The Clarksville, Arkansas plan, for instance, would have required teachers to complete 53 hours of firearms training; at the same time, very little funding is available at the state and national level for teacher professional development in the instructional areas in which they teach.
While student safety is certainly a priority, the present discourse ignores even the most basic issues related to this question such as how school districts would finance such training or more accurately what present instructional or other programs will be cut in order to support it. A proposal in South Carolina last February to place armed police in every school projected the program to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 Million dollars a year. How can this be the wisest allocation of resources, especially when lawmakers continue to complain about the state of American schools? Much of this dialogue however served as a smoke screen to institute cuts and changes far more injurious to American education, especially in the realm of supporting teachers. In its 2012 Report Card on American Education, for instance, the American Education Legislative Council ranked Arkansas 45th in the nation. One of the factors that earned the state such a low rating was its performance in retaining effective teachers, something that might be exacerbated by dictating they be armed and trained to shoot people rather than educate them.
To be fair to Arkansas, this is a national problem. Connecticut scored only slightly higher with a 39 ranking in the same report and received an F, to Arkansas’ C in retaining effective teachers; a weakness identified as a critical need across the board in many states. Too little attention has been paid to the support of teachers as a critical piece of educational reform. In fact, the opposite has been true. Spending freezes, cuts to special education, and reduced funding for after school programs is the order of the day in most states leaving many teachers frustrated. Efforts to strip away tenure, and pay for advanced degrees, coupled with initiatives to weaken the influence of teachers unions have further undermined morale. Schools are more likely than ever to throw away their greatest asset in educating young people- the women and men, who teach.
Significantly, in June, despite the sluggish economy, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to provide Connecticut districts with the same or more funding under a new two-year plan. In spite of this, Shelia Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, rightly points out that Connecticut schools remain woefully underfunded to the tune of perhaps a billion dollars. She and the CEA have consistently asked legislators to remain focused on the larger issue: how do we identify, create, and sustain viable revenue sources that will ensure that the state will continue to provide high-quality education for all young people? One of the critical answers to the question across the country will involve the recruitment and retention of quality teachers—not sharpshooters. Turning schools into armed fortresses most certainly will not help, especially if financing for such initiatives comes at the expense of critical funding in other areas.
Ironically, lost in the tales of heroism performed by teachers such as Victoria Soto, during the Sandy Hook shooting is the fact that at the core they were teachers. Like all professionals, they spent their time working toward perfecting their craft. What they cared about most was producing well-informed and well-adjusted young people. If we truly want to arm teachers: load them up with the real ammunition they have been asking for, better pay, quality instructional spaces, and crystal clear standards that they help develop. Perhaps then, we can truly move the needle on education toward the high quality instruction our young people deserve.
In the absence of this type of real reform, we should seriously consider what impact pistol packing instructors and administrators would have on our youth, already awash in a sea of violent movies, music, and culture. Arming teachers sends the wrong message to the people who we claim matter most-young people. Along with access to quality education, they deserve to learn in an environment that affirms humanity rather than privileging fear. All of the stakeholders, parents, teachers, and school administrators have a critical role to play in making this a reality, but it begins with prioritizing what matters most—delivering quality education, through dedicated teachers, in spaces that highlight our ability to work out our problems free from the resort to weapons.
Yohuru Williams is Professor and Chair of History and Director of Black Studies at Fairfield University. You can follow him on Twitter at @YohuruWilliams