Sanders is positioning herself as part of a new conservative vanguard of gubernatorial leadership that includes Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. She is portraying herself as a fighter who is willing to go to war against the establishment, especially on the issues of education and reforming the bureaucracy. Shortly after taking office, she signed seven executive orders, including ones that will curb critical race theory in schools and ban TikTok on state devices.
In a move right out of the DeSantis-Youngkin playbook, Sanders is making education reform the cornerstone of her administration and is vowing to be “Arkansas’ education governor.” In addition to targeting “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools,” Sanders is building her education policy around the LEARNS Plan to increase “Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and Safety” in Arkansas’ schools.
The new governor appointed top Florida school official Jacob Oliva to serve as her education secretary. Oliva, who previously worked for DeSantis as a senior chancellor, is a veteran civil servant who pushed for in-person instruction in Florida’s public schools and increased access to vouchers. His appointment represents a strategic push to mimic Florida’s successes, especially given Oliva’s experience combatting critical race theory and building career pathways for students out of public school.
Oliva certainly has his work cut out for him, as Arkansas scored below the national average for reading and math skills in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Sanders is planning additional legislation that is focused on increasing teacher pay and overhauling Little Rock’s schooling system.
During her campaign, Sanders portrayed herself as a law-and-order candidate who is dedicated to reducing crime and reinstituting respect for law enforcement officials.
Arkansas voters have reason to resonate with her pro-police message, as the state has the fourth-highest violent crime rate in the country, which is exceeded only by Alaska, New Mexico, and Tennessee. Additionally, Axios reported that the state’s violent offense and homicide rates jumped by 15.6 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in 2021 to reach an all-time high.
To tackle this crisis, Sanders turned to incoming Secretary of Public Safety Mike Hagar and Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri. Both Hagar and Profiri are suitable hawks on crime, as Hagar had a 26-year career with the Arkansas State Police prior to being nominated. Profiri, meanwhile, accumulated over three decades of experience overseeing prisons and eventually became the deputy director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections.
With Hagar in charge of the police and Profiri the prisons, Sanders is gearing up her lieutenants to wage a war on crime. In her inaugural address, the governor outlined her plan to “end the crime wave plaguing [Arkansas’] cities” by cracking down on prison releases, increasing funding for police departments, and allocating resources for inmate rehabilitation.
While some critics have reductively labeled Sanders’ crime plan as a “lock-them-up strategy,” the realities necessitate such measures. Arkansas’ prison population is overwhelming the facilities meant to house them, and the Department of Corrections was forced to release hundreds of inmates after the prisons reached 105 percent capacity.
Perhaps her approach is a wake-up call that Republicans need to be serious, policy-striven professionals instead of media hounds and reactionaries, or they will keep losing.