When Jerry Cox, the president of the ultraconservative Family Council organization, suggested on Facebook that his application to teach at Arkansas Governor’s School this summer was rejected because he was a Christian, state Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) responded, assuring him that “significant change is coming. I have been working on this for months and will have more to say about this soon.”
Governor’s School, which has been held in summer at Hendrix College since its founding in 1980, has periodically come under attack as an incubator of left-wing ideas. The censors of the American Family Association of Arkansas have demanded on several occasions the school be shut down for “brainwashing” students against religion.
Hendrix College, a private four-year liberal arts school that is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, does not does not hire faculty; hiring and curriculum are the “responsibility” of the Arkansas Department of Education, Hendrix Provost Terri Bonebright said. AGS has included clergy among its teachers and has scheduled speakers with all points of view, including former Republican state Rep. Dan Greenburg and national figures like Phyllis Schlafly.
The mission of Governor’s School, which is funded through the Gifted & Talented and Advanced Placement office of the Department of Education, is to lead students to “explore cutting-edge theories in the arts and sciences and to develop a greater understanding of how art, culture, and knowledge change with time,” and to challenge them to “develop the rigorous creative and intellectual skills that will be critical to their leading the ideal ‘life well lived’ and for making positive contributions to their communities and to society at large,” its website says.
That Cox would assume he was rejected as a faculty member because of his Christian beliefs despite his qualifications is yet another example that many on the right are unhappy with the manner of teaching at the AGS. However, standards for hiring at AGS are high: Half of those hired to teach in academic areas have doctoral degrees. Cox, according to his two-page application, has a B.S. in education, social science and library science, but did not complete a master’s degree program. His other listed credentials are 11 years’ “classroom teaching experience”; his involvement in the pro-life movement and his work to “uphold traditional marriage.” His hobbies are photography, fishing and collecting antiques. He was competing against applicants with advanced degrees, specifics on where they’ve taught, including at the college level; what special teaching certificates they have; books and journal articles published; and scholarly presentations.
Rep. Lowery has been unhappy with Hendrix’ selection at least since last summer, emails released under the state Freedom of Information Act indicate. In August 2017, Lowery contacted ADE Commissioner Johnny Key with his “concerns about the lack of competition for site selection” for the Governor’s School, adding, “but I have become more concerned about the amount of authority ceded the host site over staffing, policy, etc.” Lowery did not return a call from the Arkansas Times for comment.
Lowery said he wanted to talk to Key because Hendrix’s contract as the AGS site — a three-year contract — ends after this summer, allowing for changes in the department’s Request for Proposals to potential host colleges.
It has also been assumed in some quarters that the ADE’s rules for site selection were tailored to Hendrix College.
Mary Stein, who has headed the state’s office of gifted and talented for several years, wrote to ADE Assistant Commissioner Stacy Smith on Aug. 14, 2017, that the complaint about Hendrix’s apparent lock on the program “often surfaces.” But, Stein explained, the state has interpreted its rules to mean that host campuses can’t schedule other activities simultaneous with AGS. “Having only AGS going on without other campus distractions is very important. The rules for site selection mirror the original North Carolina model for Governor’s Schools and weren’t written just for Hendrix. Hendrix is the only institution willing to give up the revenue from other summer programs that could generate funds for the college.”
Governor’s School site selection Rule 13.01 requires applicants to submit a written plan providing “specific details guaranteeing no other campus activity or its participants will interfere with any Governor’s School activity or student including the requirements listed in 13.02 through 13.06.” (The latter rules apply to dining facilities, dorms, library access and classrooms, labs, studios and other facilities.)
Smith told the Times last week, just before the site application deadline, that there were “internal discussions” within the ADE this year on how to interpret the rule, and that the ADE will no longer take it to mean that campuses cannot host other activities while the school is in session. However, those activities must still not “interfere” with the Governor’s School.
It appears from the emails that Lowery or the governor wanted to encourage an application from Harding University in Searcy, which describes itself as a “Christian institution.”
Harding was apparently informed of the new interpretation. Dean and Professor of Education Clara Carroll contacted Commissioner Key on Feb. 7, writing, “Harding hosts many summer activities and this seems to be a barrier in the application process. If you could help us overcome this obstacle, I’d greatly appreciate it.” That same day, Key emailed Governor Hutchinson’s education liaison Leslie Fisken asking that she let the governor know “that Harding is submitting.”
The new site selection Request for Proposals for the 2019-21 AGS contract summarizes rule 13.01, dropping the words “participants,” “any” and “student.” But Smith said the summary refers to rule 13.01 and that “the rules trump everything.”
As it turns out, Harding did not make an application to host the school. But after years of being the sole applicant for the school, this year Hendrix faces competition from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
The RFP for the 2019-21 contract adds a computer science component; Tech proposes to “provide students with a contemporary, technology-based curriculum,” infusing the theme of Technology: Past, Present and Future into all areas of the curriculum. UCA touts its “cyber range for simulating computer network technology.” Hendrix cites Governor Hutchinson’s “state wide endeavors to increase the understanding of computing and coding in the public schools” and says course work will “provide opportunities for students to expand their ability to code” and “understanding advances in computing theory.”
It will be up to a committee selected by Key to award the contract for the AGS for the 2019-21 contract. Key has not yet named the committee members, Smith said.