Lawmaker Jane English Helps Spur Workforce Training Reform

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Apr. 7, 2014 12:00 am  

State Sen. Jane English has no use for the private option, the Medicaid expansion providing health insurance to the poor.

But the Republican lawmaker from North Little Rock saw an opportunity and took it, and what began as an old-fashioned political horse trade — you get my vote, I get something for my constituents — appears likely to evolve into a governor-backed legislative package that next year will seek to transform workforce training in Arkansas.

That’s because English would rather see the poor move out of sometimes multigenerational poverty into a job; so would Gov. Mike Beebe. At the same time employers in Arkansas, particularly manufacturers, want a workforce that will show up for work and know how to use a ruler. (See Changing Face of Manufacturing Leads to Skills Gap, Job Opportunities.)

These wishes are on track to coalesce into a broad-based effort involving state agencies ranging from the Department of Correction to the Department of Higher Education to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, along with the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, among others.

All because one woman, grown tired of the status quo, sought to move beyond political party and individual turf to what is good for the state as a whole.

“We continue to go down the same path, but we don’t change,” English said in an interview last week in the state Capitol. “Where is our vision for what we want to be 20 years from now or 25 years from now? For my grandchildren and for your grandchildren, what do we want to be? I don’t want to be 49th forever.”

The interview came four days before she was scheduled to meet with much of Beebe’s cabinet as well as a couple other key Republican state senators to discuss worker education reform. It’s reform that English envisions eventually involving every aspect of education, from K-12 to higher ed to career ed to state-sponsored job training programs.

The interview came six weeks after English agreed to become the swing vote approving an additional year of funding for the private option in exchange for the state implementing worker education reform.

Inside and Out

English went to work for what was then the Department of Economic Development in 1984, staying there 15 years, most of the time, she said, recruiting industry to Arkansas. During her time at the department, English became involved with the closure and realignment of military bases, a result of the end of the Cold War, on the national level.

She later went on to become director of the Fort Chaffee Public Trust, another outgrowth of the federal effort to downsize the military, and later worked as director of the Arkansas Manufacturers Association. But in 2001, the association disbanded, citing the recession and the continued decline in manufacturing in the U.S., and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee invited English, now 73, to join his cabinet as director of the state Workforce Investment Board, where she served a little more than two years.

“And then I just kind of retired and got into politics,” said English, a Nebraska native. “I said listen, I tried to change the world from the inside and it doesn’t work.”



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