Arch Ford: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

This week, I would like to tell you a little bit about a project I have been working on for the past year. While gathering research for what I thought would be an article on Arch Ford, I discovered that Mr. Ford had deposited 75 scrapbooks with the UA Special Collections at Fayetteville. Once I went through the scrapbooks, I knew that it would take much more than an article to tell his story.

And so I wrote a book. This past spring, Butler Center Books, a division of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, agreed to publish it. It is called Man of Vision: Arkansas Education and the Legacy of Arch Ford. I will have a book signing on Sunday, September 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce. If you already have a copy, bring it and I will sign it. I will also have copies available for sale.

As commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education from 1953 to 1978, Arch Ford served under five governors—Cherry, Faubus, Rockefeller, Bumpers and Pryor–and ushered Arkansas education into the modern era. His vision was to expand educational opportunities to all Arkansans because he believed education was the foundation for improving people’s lives.

Ford was raised in Wooster, north of Conway, but got his high school diploma from the Arkansas State Normal School. He went on to get his bachelor’s degree from ASTC (now UCA) in 1928. After teaching at several area schools and serving as an educational advisor for the CCC camps, he began working at the Arkansas Department of Education in 1941. He was named commissioner in 1953, living in Conway for most of his time at the State Department.

Throughout his career, Ford campaigned for increased educational funding, better-qualified teachers, and higher teachers’ salaries. Standards were raised so that all Arkansas teachers had to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Education funding would grow to be over half of the entire state budget.

Ford helped lead the state in peacefully integrating its schools after the “crisis of Little Rock Central.” He also guided Arkansas in establishing 23 vocational-technical schools across the state. He believed it was important for all Arkansans to be within driving distance of schools so that they could receive the vocational and technical training they needed to fill available jobs in Arkansas.

During Ford’s tenure, the Arkansas Children’s Colony was established at Conway to provide educational services to those with developmental disabilities. Under Ford’s leadership, the state would go on to provide special education programs in all public schools.

Ford and the state Department of Education also helped develop educational television in the state. Arkansas Educational Television Network, with studios in Conway, was set up to provide instructional programming across the state.

In the early 1960s, Arkansas developed one of the best economic education programs in the country. The program, now called Economics Arkansas, provides economic education training to thousands of elementary and secondary teachers in the state. For decades, Arkansas teachers have swept national awards for teaching excellence in the area of economics.

Ford also campaigned to change the Arkansas Constitution to allow the state to educate those beyond the ages of six to 21. This allowed the funding of public kindergarten as well as adult education programs. Increased educational funding during Ford’s tenure also enabled the state to provide free textbooks to high school students. His leadership left Arkansas with a strong educational system that has continued to advance.

Man of Vision is available at River Market Books & Gifts on the Main Library campus of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, from online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and through the University of Arkansas Press (via University of Chicago Press) at (800) 621-2736 and I will also have books available for sale during the fair at the Faulkner County Historical Society table.