In what's become a near-annual tradition, the Arkansas Times recently solicited suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to improve life in Arkansas. We present those ideas here, along with others on a variety of topics. We hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't could be with the right collection of advocates.
Remove the incentive to build expensive power plants
By Glen Hooks
Power plants are expensive investments, often in the several billions of dollars. Investors at that level want to minimize risk, so it's a common practice for state public service commissions to guarantee a significant rate of return for those who build power plants that provide electricity to public consumers. Rates of 10 to 12 percent are not unheard of, and the return is guaranteed by the payment of our electric bills.
While this makes sense in some ways, it also creates an incentive for utilities to want to build the largest and most expensive power plants — a 10 percent rate of return on a $3 billion project is much more attractive than a 10 percent rate of return on a $1 billion project. That's perhaps the reason why you've seen boondoggle projects like the failed $7 billion coal plant project in Mississippi and proposed nuclear facilities in Georgia and South Carolina in which cost overruns have reached as high as $15 billion. Without pointing fingers at individual utilities or projects, it is undeniable that a financial incentive exists to build costly projects.
How about we stop guaranteeing big rates of return for utilities on their capital investments? This guarantee is going to become more and more important as clean energy technology continues to improve. What will a utility do in a situation where its investors make more money on a coal or gas plant, but it is cheaper and better for the state to invest in a solar or wind project that is less capital intensive? Clean energy projects are much less costly than fossil fuel
I know that our Public Service Commission goes to great lengths to protect ratepayers, and I respect the job it does when PSC vet proposed utility projects. However, we'd all be better off if the incentive to build the costliest of projects was removed entirely.
Let's instead incentivize utilities to build projects that benefit our state in other meaningful ways. I'm all for paying incentives to utilities that prioritize public and environmental health, that don't foul our air and water and don't rely on mining that destroys communities. Utilities are starting to lead on clean energy here in Arkansas, and I'd welcome a mindset that continued to encourage that practice over building the most expensive plant possible.
In short: Let's not make our utilities want to spend billions to pollute
Glen Hooks is executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club.
End student debt
By Billy Fleming
$31,217. That's how much the average Arkansan owes after graduating from college. As a result, millennials have seen their odds of living the American Dream diminished by the burden of student debt — a dream their parents and grandparents realized at the expense of their children and grandchildren.
But we don't have to live like this. All across the country, at universities large and small, public and private, a simple idea is erasing student debt and unlocking new pathways to prosperity for young Americans: the no-loan policy.
In practice, most no-loan policies apply a form of means-testing to tuition and the cost of attendance. It means that you pay what you can — no more, no less. At Harvard, for instance, where the sticker price of attendance is nearly $70,000 a year, students from low- and middle-income families pay little or nothing if they garner admission. There, a student whose parents earn $60,000 or less pays less than $5,000 to attend Harvard — all of which is covered through a guaranteed work-study program administered by the university. It's not a free ride.
The University of Virginia, U. Pennsylvania, U. Texas, U. North Carolina, U. Florida and U. Louisville each have comparable programs. All of them are aimed at making college — and the wage premiums it bestows upon graduates — accessible to communities long-underserved by higher education in this country, especially working-class families in the rural South.
So, how would this all work? Well, it looks slightly different at every university. At large, private institutions like Harvard, Penn and Yale, huge endowments allow each university to waive tuition for most undergraduate students. Penn, for examples, is tuition-free for any student whose parents make less than $100,000 per year. At public universities like Texas, Virginia and North Carolina, the program works by setting a very high on-paper rate for tuition, one that's only charged to the wealthiest students on campus. Everyone else pays a prorated amount, from full tuition to none, based on his or her families' financial circumstances.
It's important to note here that I'm saying no-loan policy, not free college as some unthinking conservatives on Twitter might utter in response to such an idea. Every existing no-loan policy in the United States still requires the students who benefit from it to pay for a portion of their education through work-study programs, paid summer internships and other forms of part-time employment. Even if they didn't, their families have already paid into the system of higher education through state and local taxes. They all have skin in the game.
At the University of Arkansas, roughly half of all undergraduate students come from families making $150,000 or more per year — many of whom hail from Texas, Oklahoma or other
In the second-poorest state with the second-fewest number of university graduates, surely making college — and the social and economic opportunity it provides — more affordable for the folks who need it most would meet that standard. Moreover, redirecting the $1.2 trillion in currently held American student debt toward new home purchases and retirement investments could supercharge the nation's economy and unleash a period of shared economic growth not seen since the 1950s.
Congressional Republicans — Arkansas's delegation included — just spent $1.4 trillion on tax cuts that went overwhelmingly toward the wealthiest individuals and corporations in this country. For $200 billion less, they could have erased the entire student debt burden in this country and unlocked trillions in new, consumer-driven growth.
The great promise of this country is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you're from, you deserve to have a fair shot at building the life you want. But too often, a person's future is defined by their past. In this case, we know that the single most powerful predictor of your wealth at retirement age is your parents' wealth at their retirement age. It doesn't have to be that way. We can open new doors to opportunity, grow the economy, and fight poverty all at once if we erase the burden of student debt once and for all. We just have to decide to do it.
Billy Fleming is the research director of the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a
More quality, safe and affordable housing choices
By Rachael Borné
The federal Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program gives recipients the option to pay subsidized rent on any house or apartment in our community, so long as the monthly rent does not exceed the fair market rate, the property passes a housing quality standard inspection, and the landlord agrees to participate. Rental payments are prorated based on household income, usually requiring the tenant to pay 30 percent of his or her income, with agencies like Metropolitan Housing Alliance (MHA) using HUD funding to pick up the slack.
I work as a program manager at Our House, a social service campus for low-income and homeless people. Permanent housing vouchers like Section 8 create opportunity and stability in the lives of many of the families we serve. For folks like Cynthia Huff, who works at a Little Rock hotel and bears the burden of a seasonal industry, Section 8 helps her and her granddaughter make ends meet. Without housing assistance during the
When the Section 8 waitlist opened up in Little Rock, Our House case managers cued up every computer in the Career Center to the MHA application portal, ready to refresh until we got clients through to the form. The page went live at 10 a.m., and within seconds froze up with an error message: No more spots available. That was on Aug. 25, 2015. The waitlist has been closed ever since.
Like the rest of the nation, Little Rock faces a crisis of access to safe and affordable housing. According to MHA's 2018 Annual Plan, 5,085 individuals are waiting on subsidized housing in Little Rock. Of those, 97 percent have an annual income of less than $14,000 and 80 percent are families with children.
In Matthew Desmond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Evicted," he pushes for a really big idea, one that would have a monumental impact in Little Rock: a universal voucher system akin to other benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, where everyone under an income threshold automatically receives a housing subsidy. Vouchers can be easily scaled up. Piloting such a groundbreaking program in Little Rock could serve as a national model. A
The gains are immeasurable — evictions would be rare and slumlords rarer, tenants would gain the right they deserve to safe living conditions, neighborhood blight would plummet, low-income people would visit hospitals less, children would suffer fewer disruptive school transfers, homelessness and hunger would drop drastically, and households would have more time and energy to invest in employment and education. Desmond describes housing as "a human-capital investment, just like job programs or education, one that would strengthen and steady the American workforce."
*Require developments of a certain size to dedicate 20 percent of units to low-income tenants. Think about the construction boom in downtown Little Rock, where manufactured apartment buildings, parking lots and garages pepper the landscape. The Little Rock Planning and Development Commission could play a pivotal role in demanding mixed-income development in rapidly gentrifying areas. This is not a new idea; the federal 80/20 Program allows tax-exempt bonds to finance the construction of developments comprising at least 20 percent affordable units. This model could exist outside of HUD
*Establish a slanted rent ceiling for Section 8 properties based on ZIP codes. To qualify for Section 8 payments, a property's monthly rent cannot surpass the Fair Market Rent value determined by HUD. In Little Rock, this means $676 for one-bedroom housing or up to $1,289 for four-bedroom housing. In Little Rock's most resource-rich, affluent
*Encourage Section 8 property owners to recruit more landlords for the program. For the lucky few who are able to get
Landlords willing to promote their positive experience with voucher-holders might help eradicate ignorant stereotypes and expand the geographical reach of Section 8 properties. One of the landlords who
At the end of "Evicted," Desmond writes, "Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: Without stable shelter, everything falls apart."
That's not just a big idea. It's a fundamental truth.
Rachael Borné is a program manager at Our House.
Eliminate at-large city board positions
By Samantha Toro
Little Rock's current system of electing both ward-based and at-large city directors helps ensure a majority white City Board in a city that is not majority white. Regardless of what the system was designed to do, it produces inequitable results. We can correct this by eliminating the at-large board positions and moving to ward-based City Board elections.
At-large positions may seem fair on the surface, but empirical evidence and national trends suggest that at-large board positions do not accurately represent residents of large, diverse cities such as Little Rock.
A 2015 Hendrix College study of elections since 1957 showed that Little Rock's successful at-large candidates tend to run vastly more expensive campaigns: At-large candidates raised an average of $50,227 compared to the $8,767 raised by ward candidates. The percentage of elections resulting in white at-large candidates was 87.6 percent, compared to 59 percent in ward elections. At-large elections produced white male winners 80.9 percent of the time and ward elections produced white male winners 46.2 percent of the time.
The high financial barrier to entry for at-large elections limits the pool of potential candidates to well-heeled and well-connected individuals. Given Little Rock's documented history of housing discrimination and intentional segregation, it is unsurprising that successful at-large candidates are more likely to be white and come from the northwest part of the city.
Figures like the $95,000 spent on at-large Director Gene Fortson's 2012 campaign can seem discouraging to potential candidates from poorer
When elections are only drawing at-large candidates from white
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed complaints in several Southern cities alleging that their at-large council elections have been used as a tool to dilute
Whether or not the dilution of minority votes in Little Rock is intentional, the data points to a skewed balance of power. In a city that is 48 percent white, 42 percent black, 6 percent Latino and 4 percent other, Little Rock's current board is 70 percent white and 30 percent black. If the three at-large directors aren't counted, the breakdown is 57 percent white and 43 percent black — much closer to the actual demographics of the city.
According to the National League of Cities, at-large elections tend to be more practical for smaller (fewer than 70,000 people) and more racially and economically homogeneous cities. Nearly all major U.S. cities, including Little Rock's regional
Empirical data, first-hand experience and national trends all indicate that Little Rock is too geographically, ethnically and economically diverse for the at-large system. The city needs to eliminate the at-large positions, take advantage of its diversity, and tap into the vast potential that lies in the substantial black, Latino and low-income population.
If the at-large positions remain, they will ensure the City Board remains majority white despite Little Rock's growing diversity. Ensuring a plurality of voices are heard and represented will result in a stronger city more poised for equitable growth and innovation.
Samantha Toro is a member of Grassroots Arkansas, a group of concerned citizens based in Little Rock.
Align homeless services
By Rev. Carter Ferguson
Homelessness is a significant issue in Little Rock. The topic and its effects pepper the news, conversations in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
In 2016, the average homeless rate of medium to large metropolitan areas in the nation was 17.7 percent out of every 10,000 residents. Little Rock's was nearly triple that at 50.5 percent per every 10,000 residents. Our chronic homeless rate was double the national average; sadly, so was our veteran's homeless rate, and it's all on the rise. The point bears repeating: Homelessness is a significant issue in Little Rock.
The problem of homelessness, however, goes beyond the intimidation that you feel from the warmth of your car while sitting at a red light on the interstate off-ramp at Broadway or University Avenue. The problem is more than simply the business you have lost in your River Market operation or the irritation you feel when you "see it" in the woods near your collegiate preparatory school. The problem even goes beyond the indisputable call of Christ to care for the poor. Since money is the only thing that so many are willing to listen to, let me make it clear: Homelessness is an economic crisis that threatens virtually everyone in this city.
In 2017, a United State Interagency Council on Homelessness study showed the average homeless person in America costs a local economy around $40,448 per year. Multiply this by HUD's lowest estimate for the homeless population in the Little Rock metro area — 1,047 — and the financials of this crisis begin to come into perspective: It represents an economic drain of at least $42 million a year. What's more frightening is that this is, again, based on HUD's very narrow definition of a homeless person, meaning the dollar amount could be double that.
So how do we solve this issue and save ourselves some money in the process? More services? Better services? No. Little Rock already has the brilliance and the heart to fix the problem. These services simply need to be more tightly coordinated and collaborative.
You see, the service industry — and not just in Little Rock — functions like a network. They see a client and then send them to someone else in their network. Unfortunately, networks have holes in them, and those chronically on the street are by and large the ones that the network cannot or will not catch for many reasons.
So, instead of a network, what if we created a bucket to catch and save these beautiful people that our society so ignores, while also saving ourselves a little bit — or a lot — of money?
That's exactly what my church, Canvas Community, and a very small and tight-knit group of advocates for the homeless and leading minds in various areas of service are creating. We're calling it The Hub.
The Hub is a co-working space to be located in the historic Seventh Street corridor that, rather than attempting to re-invent and duplicate brilliant services and efforts that already exist, offers a space to work collaboratively to solve chronic homelessness, all while cost-sharing utilities, rent, renovations, software costs, overhead and much more, to for-profit and nonprofit businesses; city, state, and federal agencies; individual contract workers; and any other organization.
The Hub, designed by Jeremiah Russell at Rogue Architecture, will provide a centralized location where a homeless individual can see the brilliant doctors at ARCare, a federally qualified health center; enroll in DHS benefits; see a psychologist or psychiatrist from Chenal Family Therapy; attend addiction recovery classes; work with a life coach or social worker; apply for rapid rehousing; visit a parole officer; work off community service hours; register to vote; receive mail; work on their GED; learn about healthy cooking; meditate; connect to employers willing to hire former felons; enter into a formerly incarcerated person's recovery program; and even receive pastoral care at their request (we don't force anything on anyone, ever). If we cannot solve the problem here, then we'll also have a working van that can immediately take people to places like the city's day resource
Homelessness is an economic crisis that affects us all, so it's a problem that we should all work together to address. The reason Little Rock's problem is so bad is in no small part due to the inability of us to work together. Our big idea for 2018 is to remedy that.
Carter Ferguson is the lead pastor of Canvas Community Church.
Embrace industrial hemp
By Nicholas Dial
We live in a world that is run by fossil fuels — plants that grew millions of years ago that are now in a pool of carbon deep below the Earth's surface. Much of this fossil fuel usage occurs in plain
We also live in a world of accelerated deforestation. According to the World Wildlife Fund, we are losing 18.7 million acres of forests each year, or the equivalent of 27 soccer fields each minute. Much of this timber is used to make products such as paper and packaging materials.
Many of the things surrounding us every day are toxic, from the volatile organic compounds seeping out of the carpets on our floors and the paints on our walls to the insulation used to keep our homes warm. What if there was one plant that could be made into over 25,000 products, clean up the environment and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?
There is. And it's coming to Arkansas in 2018.
Industrial hemp farming has been prohibited for over 80 years, thanks to its confused association with marijuana. Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp contains
Several companies around the world are making concrete-like materials out of hemp, known as hempcrete. This material is seven times lighter than regular concrete, resistant to
The nutrient-rich oil produced in hemp seeds can be made into thousands of beauty care products, such as shampoos, lip balms, soaps and lotions. The compounds in hemp seed oil act as a UV protectant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent.
Planting hemp on contaminated soils helps improve the soil quality by pulling the toxins out and adding organic matter, which helps the growth of other crops in the future.
The Arkansas Industrial Hemp Act was passed in 2017 and establishes a research pilot program. The purpose of the program is to experiment with different ways of using hemp so that Arkansas can move to the forefront of industrial hemp commercialization in the future.
Here's a big idea: Start planting hemp for a greener future!
Nicholas Dial is the president of the Arkansas Hemp Association.
Rebuild trust with independent investigations of police
By Charles Blake
I was born and raised in the south end of Little Rock in the 1980s and '90s. Now, I serve and represent this same area as a state representative for District 36. As a Little Rock native, I am fully aware that crime in our communities is a problem, but the distrust that communities have with their local police departments is an epidemic.
The distrust is fueled by a lack of transparency and accountability within police departments. The lack of transparency continues to feed the narrative that "police officers are above the laws" that they are sworn to protect. This narrative is one of the foundations of the belief that there is a failure in the justice system.
My big idea is to mandate independent investigations into police-involved deaths. This will re-establish the community's trust and belief in their local police department. Whenever there is a police-involved shooting, the public's distrust is on display. In these situations, communities are forced to swallow the fact that co-workers of the officers involved in the death are expected to investigate their colleagues with unbiased eyes.
How can we expect co-workers and colleagues to objectively and fairly investigate each other? The close working relationships between officers, detectives and prosecutors cause doubt in the process. There is a perception of a conflict of interest. And because perception is
On Dec. 9, 2010, Little Rock Police Officer Donna Lesher, an off-duty officer working security, shot and killed unarmed 67-year-old Eugene Ellison from outside his apartment. Lesher had scuffled with Ellison after he objected to entry into his apartment through an open door without permission.
As expected, many questioned the fairness of the investigations following the shooting. Lesher was married to the sergeant of the detective division, which handles the criminal investigations of officer involved-shootings for the LRPD. As is its protocol, the Little Rock Police Department started an investigation. About a week later, it requested the Arkansas State Police to join the investigation. However, too much time had passed for the State Police to ensure a quality, evenhanded investigation.
Lesher remained on the police force, was cleared of any rules violations, and the prosecutor's office found the shooting justified. No charges were filed. Due to many factors — including a civil lawsuit filed against the city of Little Rock — Lesher, the city and other defendants eventually settled with the Ellison family for around $1 million.
Independent investigations into all police-involved deaths would be a step to dismantle the perception that the bad actors won't be held accountable. It would also show communities that police departments are taking steps toward the community to build much-needed trust.
Police departments and city and county officials can advocate for and implement a written policy that requires all officer-involved deaths to be investigated by an independent agency. These independent investigations could install a system that is transparent and objective. Bad actors would be expected to be punished. Conversely, those whose actions were found to be justified would be validated and vindicated. Hopefully, a little faith in the justice system would be restored.
I acknowledge that it relies on us, those in public service, to take that first step to
Without re-establishing trust, any proactive actions by police officers will be undermined. For example, we can say and promote "community policing" until we are blue in the face, but if there is no trust between the police and the community, then it's just another ambiguous, generic phrase that misses the mark. Law enforcement can start building that trust, by taking an uncomfortable step toward the community and joining the call for independent investigations of police-involved shootings.
State Rep. Charles Blake of Little Rock represents District 36.
Create a science boot camp for elected officials
By Steve Barger
Let's face it: The people we most commonly elect to public office come from a background of education and experience that emphasizes social studies, humanities and financial acumen to the near-complete exclusion of science. As someone who has come to find the scientific lens a useful one through which to gauge all aspects of reality, I see this as a failure of society on a more fundamental level. The fact is, citizens of this nation can easily matriculate through 17 years of formal education, perhaps even tack on three to four more years of graduate or professional school in law or business or humanities, without exposure to any science more sophisticated than 10th-grade biology. I still remember vividly the disappointment of my college philosophy professor when I told him that four years of interdisciplinary study at Hendrix had boiled down to the conclusion that science had demonstrated its supremacy, as a reliable informer of my worldview, over the contemplative musings of Plato and Santayana. It would be a complete betrayal of that liberal arts alma mater if I argued scientific deliberation as the only valid — or even the most useful — way to make every decision. However, anyone who has obtained medical relief from a pharmaceutical or relied upon motorized conveyance for transportation would be just as foolish to deny that science is an extremely pragmatic way to understand and improve our world. It's hard to sit idly by and watch failings in the arena of public policy without feeling that governance could benefit from a more empirical approach.
Climate science is one of the most obvious examples. Biology teaches that the very concept of race has no genetic underpinnings. In the social sciences, economic models prove that the rich get rich — and richer still — by dumb luck (so do we really need to help them with corporate-friendly policies and an election system that's sold to the highest bidder?). Advances in neuroimaging have revealed that few if any of our decisions are made consciously, much less through rational deliberation. Indeed, psychology has driven home the point again and again that we are but animals, prone to emotional reactions barely more impressive than a fish seeking sustenance from a shiny, hook-laden spoon.
So, perhaps the greatest lesson of science is not in facts, but in the process of epistemology itself. We gain much more than humility when science convinces us that we are guided by feelings and misperceptions (many of which were shaped by conditions of evolution far different from those under which we currently attempt to cope). We also come to see the quantum-mechanical
Can we make remedial science education mandatory for elected officials? Sadly, I suppose it would be necessarily voluntary; even if we could compel our newly elected leaders to attend, we could never force the ideas to stick. As I was considering this essay and discussing it with others, I mused about the relative value of a boot camp for science vs. one for civics. Surely, the need to understand the essential elements of democratic heritage and the mechanics of government would be more urgent for the typically naive elected official
Steve Barger is a biology researcher and educator in Central Arkansas.
- MESH MEETING: LINC planners (from left) Rick Lee, Lori Tankersly, Jeremy Culbreath, Lissa Culbreath and Leif Hassell meet Fridays at Vino's to discuss the not-for-profit Wi-Fi idea.
Create a not-for-profit Wi-Fi 'mesh'
Imagine a Wi-Fi network that unhampered by the FCC's recent undoing of net neutrality, one in which content is not blocked, and one that is affordable. That's what Leif Hassell and members of the Little Rock Local Independent Networking Cooperative are imagining. They want to cover the city of Little Rock and North Little Rock with a wireless "mesh"
Hassell, who is a computer networking/fire alarm/intercom technician, said he and his cohorts were "tired of the choices we had" for wireless internet service: Two companies, Comcast and AT&T, dominate the market. They also want more people to be able to afford access to the internet; they would subsidize low-income users of the internet by tier pricing; buyers at the top, getting high download speeds, would help the mesh pay for buyers at a barebones broadband speed. The low tier would pay around $30 to $40 a month.
It's still a dream, but it's one taking shape at the monthly meetings of Little Rock LINC (Local Independent Networking Cooperative, littlerocklinc.org). "We're coming to the problem at small angles," Hassell
New York City is a model: NYC Mesh is a community-owned network of Wi-Fi routers that connect directly to the internet "backbone," rather than an internet service provider. It describes itself as a "neutral network that does not block or discriminate content," nor does it store collect user data; it gets some of its connectivity donated.
Hassell would like Little Rock LINC to eventually serve users of the TOR browser that allows anonymous use of the internet. Other goals: to create a technology recycling program that would provide older laptops to schoolkids who can't afford new ones and push for tax breaks for high-end users, recognizing their costs as subsidies to low-end users.
LINC is in the fundraising stage: It needs $20,000 to $30,000 to start up, Hassell said. Its members are working on grants and putting together equipment and testing it. The mesh would be sustainable "once we got 20 to 30 households" hooked in, he said. Others working with Hassell include Todd Shapley, Jeremy Culbreath, Travis Bailey, Chris Kleinhofs, Timothy Lee and Rachel McCorkle.
— Leslie Newell Peacock
By Cathy Koehler
As baby-boomers begin to retire and more students enter our schools, Arkansas faces a serious dilemma: a shortage of teachers.
Unfortunately, we also face an effort to
Long-term solutions are needed to keep educators in the profession by improving working conditions, increasing preparation and mentoring, reducing over-burdensome paperwork, and providing adequate resources that will enable them to do their jobs.
Summed up in a word: respect.
We know having qualified educators in the classroom is the biggest factor in student achievement. We also know teachers become more effective as they spend more time in the classroom.
Unfortunately, across the state and
Teacher turnover has serious implications on the quality and stability of the education profession and student success. When early career educators leave the profession, districts encounter tremendous economic turnover costs, and often resort to back-filling vacancies with out-of-field teachers or substitute teachers,
The state Bureau of Legislative Research found that the five-year teacher attrition rate was over 36 percent. That's more than one-third of new Arkansas teachers leaving the profession before they make it to the most effective years of their career.
As the teacher pipeline dries up, it is becoming harder and harder for schools to attract and retain qualified educators, especially in lower income areas.
The attrition rate is even higher in rural areas where districts can't afford to keep up buildings, let alone pay teachers the same salary as more populated areas with higher property tax collection.
In addition, teachers in these schools often face greater challenges associated with students living in poverty.
Arkansas is working to incentivize teaching in rural and high-poverty schools, but the current bonuses don't make up for the incredible difference in salaries you find in school districts across the state.
The people most likely to commit for the long term to these communities are those who grew up there and already know it as home.
Arkansas needs to develop a more comprehensive support network for new teachers, and we need to do a better job of encouraging students from underserved communities to become the next generation of teachers in their hometown.
This "grow your own" strategy should include increased scholarships or student loan forgiveness so there is no income barrier keeping these students from pursuing an education career. We also have an opportunity to ramp up the Arkansas Department of Education's Teacher Cadet program, created to recruit homegrown educators. This program is already working in dozens of schools across the state to attract our best and brightest high school students to the teaching profession.
We must bolster this increased access with better help for new hires. Arkansas should ask its longtime educators to coach their new colleagues. Engaging and supporting educators as early as possible will stem the tide of departures and create a strong and sustainable teaching force. This will give experienced educators the opportunity to share their incredible
Finally, we need to understand this issue is bigger than school districts or even the state Department of Education. If we want more people to become educators, we need to make teaching an attractive and respected career again.
Everyone in the community, from local chambers to legislators, parents and other city leaders must come together to acknowledge these problems and work together to support their schools and the educators who fill them.
How much voice, how much say, do teachers have collectively in the schoolwide decisions that affect their jobs? Are teachers treated as professionals? Are we providing safe and comfortable working (and learning) environments for educators and their students?
Achieving affirmative answers to these questions depends on having strong educator leaders who will advocate for their profession and their students. It also depends on the rest of us to support their efforts and treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves.
Cathy Koehler is president of the Arkansas Education Association.
Move from solitary confinement to program-rich prisons
By Morgan Leyenberger
Imagine sitting by yourself for an hour in a small room. Imagine not talking to anyone except a correctional officer who you must ask for food, not checking your cell phone, not being allowed to leave. Imagine 23 hours of this. Imagine days, weeks, months, years of isolation. In our contemporary world, we can hardly handle putting the phone down before bed. Humans are social creatures, and we typically have dozens or hundreds of social interactions each day — unless you're one of a few thousand people locked in an isolation cell in Arkansas's prisons.
The Arkansas Department of Correction uses these isolation cells as a form of punishment — and in some cases protection — to separate inmates from the general population. After our state prisons experienced an uptick in violence and riots in 2017, the Department of Correction announced its intention to build 400 new solitary confinement cells. An additional 400 beds will mean that on any given day, up to 16 percent of the state prison population can be confined to extreme lockdown and social isolation.
But the sensory deprivation and extreme isolation of solitary confinements
This summer, prisoners in isolation at Tucker Maximum Prison and Varner broke out and held correctional officers hostage. They were apparently demanding better living conditions. The response to these incidents, in addition to more isolation, has been to shut down religious and educational programs — punishing the entire inmate population for a systemic failure.
Arkansas calls isolation cells "restrictive housing," and the act of isolating inmates "administrative segregation" or "punitive isolation." Regardless of what it's called, it's the same practice that many states are moving away from because they consider it to be potentially torturous. People with mental illness and drug dependency disorders, gang members and victims of violence and sexual assault are among the people overrepresented in solitary confinement nationally. Arkansas already employs high rates of solitary confinement. It has not stopped
Instead of doubling down on solitary, we would be wise to learn from these mistakes and move forward with evidence-based alternatives.
Arkansas should entirely eliminate solitary confinement and instead build program-rich communities that support safe, healthy rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Inmates could earn privileges to participate in self-help groups, vocation training, exercise classes, family visits, religious or spiritual services and other enriching activities. Rather than tossing someone into isolation, these programs will increase prosocial
With some imagination and creativity, existing correctional facilities can be reimagined to increase the amount of community space like classrooms, recreation areas and dining halls. Inmates could create flower and food gardens, offering important vocation training for a career in horticulture and much-needed time in nature for socializing and healing.
Each correctional facility should be entirely focused on encouraging diverse program offerings and providing positive incentives for good
These suggestions are not groundbreaking, but they are working in states like Colorado, Washington and New York. Our next-door
Morgan Leyenberger is a licensed master social worker and executive director of Compassion Works for All, a prison outreach organization in Little Rock. She is on the board of directors of the Ecumenical Buddhist Society and co-chairs the decARcerate campaign to end mass incarceration in Arkansas.
Require four credits of journalism to earn a high school diploma
By Benjamin Hardy
It's not just the MAGA crowd: Everybody hates the media. From the radical left to the robotic
Before I began working as a reporter about four years ago, I didn't really understand the division between a newspaper's opinion section and straight news. I didn't understand why readers should treat anonymous sources with
In short, I had to work as a journalist before I could become an informed consumer of news. Maybe if we want Americans to tell the difference between real reporting and
To that end, Arkansas public schools should mandate every student to study and practice journalism throughout high school as part of core graduation requirements. Not for a single semester, but every year from ninth to 12th grade, if not earlier. It could be a standalone class (at least for upperclassmen) or it could be incorporated into the curricula of existing classes — English and social studies, but also math and science.
Four years is excessive, you say? Listen to President Trump. Visit Infowars.com. Follow Louise Mensch on Twitter. Just scroll through your Facebook feed. Now tell me we're not in a state of epistemological crisis. We, as a society, have no definition for truthful reporting or maybe even truth.
Social media has eroded the line between consuming and producing news. Any Facebook user, potentially, can grab the megaphone now. That democratization isn't bad in itself, but it allows partisans, charlatans and maniacs to take advantage of an increasingly confused and exhausted public.
The problem isn't everyone being a journalist. It's everyone being an untrained journalist. Let's do us all a
Conservatives, get on board with me. If you want an American public that can call out the biased mainstream media, teach kids how to dissect a lazy article with a liberal slant (and believe me, there are plenty of those). Give students The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, even some Breitbart, just as long as you cultivate a sense of
But when I say teaching journalism, I don't just mean discussing news stories. I mean reporting. I mean talking to human beings, seeking out background information, verifying statements, and looking at numbers. I mean thinking about who wants what and why in a given situation.
I mean studying institutions. School administration is a good place to start, but also local businesses and nonprofits, colleges, city government, planning and zoning commissions, police and fire departments, courts, churches, civic organizations — whatever. Motivated students might even help fill the yawning gap left by the decline of daily newspapers, especially in smaller cities and towns.
Above all, I mean weighing competing arguments and claims. I mean disentangling facts from opinions while not losing sight of the bigger-picture questions. This may sound like an advanced skill, but it's really not. From the earliest age, kids weigh competing truth-claims: Mom vs. Dad, teacher vs. peers, television vs. everyday experience. It's a part of being a social organism. Journalism just broadens the scope of those judgements to take in the rest of society.
And finally, I don't just mean writing; I mean audio and video, too. Millions of American students reach high school without the gateway literacy skills needed to write a newspaper article. Those kids become voters, too. A lack of facility with standard written English shouldn't get in the way of learning how to think like a journalist. I love the written word, but our society can continue without everyone having the sharpest literacy skills. It can't continue without citizens being able to sift and sort rhetoric through an informed moral frame.
Benjamin Hardy is a freelance journalist based in Little Rock and a frequent contributor to the Arkansas Times.
Better school daycare and after-care
By Margaret Strickland and Linda Brown
Our idea for a better Arkansas would be free or affordable daycare or after-school childcare. The Our House Shelter in Little Rock is a wonderful model. It is making a huge impact on the community surrounding its organization by offering daycare for preschool children and after-school for children K-12. Students are given assistance with homework and have access to a computer lab. They are given a snack, as well as wonderfully supervised playtime. Programs like the one at Our House would be game-changers for financially struggling families across the state. Quality childcare is often a large portion of a family's income. Not only would the parents realize the savings, but the children would benefit academically by having assistance with homework. Our House is changing lives. It would be amazing to see such a wonderful program be available statewide.
It would be a good idea to put daycare programs
Margaret Strickland is a former speech and language pathologist for the Little Rock School District. Linda Brown is retired from the Accademia dell'Arte
Make space for caregivers
By Meredith Martin-Moats
Many people get involved in community work and community organizing because they believe in building a more just, more equitable world. Yet the planning spaces for this work — meetings, conferences, events, rallies, vigils, study groups — are seldom welcoming to young children or the people raising them. The same goes for people caring for special needs citizens or
Throughout my work in both Little Rock and Dardanelle, I have worked alongside many others to push for greater access to organizing space and associated services for caregivers and their families. Through the Caregivers for Justice network and Little Rock Collective Liberation, I have helped to organize events where caregivers and children aren't just in
I'm a white woman, and I have learned to
Meredith Martin-Moats is the founder of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and lives with her family in Yell County.
Make it easier to rehabilitate historic properties
By Patricia Blick
The Quapaw Quarter Association's big idea is to make an important historic preservation incentive accessible to more homeowners in older
In 2009, Arkansas passed the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Act. This program has been an excellent and well-used tool to incentivize the appropriate treatment of historic properties throughout the state. Our idea is to lower the threshold to qualify for tax credits under the Tax Credit Act for owner-occupied properties, thus increasing access to this important incentive to rehabilitate historic properties.
The program works as follows:
Second, owners of historic homes must undertake rehabilitation expenses covered by the Tax Credit Act. Expenses are covered if they meet standards that encourage repair over replacement, and any necessary replacements are "in kind" — the same or similar type or appearance. New construction does not qualify for tax credits.
Under state law today, an owner who occupies a historic home can receive a 25 percent state tax credit on up to $100,000 of approved rehabilitation expenses. That's up to $25,000 of tax credits, which can be sold to another party or applied to reduce state taxes for up to five years. But to take advantage of the program, you must spend a minimum of $25,000 — a high threshold. What if the statutory minimum was lowered from $25,000 to $5,000 for owner-occupied properties, thus significantly enhancing the access for smaller projects to qualifying properties?
All homes require upkeep and maintenance, and maintaining
We believe that this change will assist historic homeowners with basic repair and maintenance projects, like roof repair or replacement, upgrading their electric, even repair or replacement of their HVAC systems; necessary property maintenance whose costs simply do not rise to the current minimum level for the tax credits. By taking advantage of the tax credits and following the treatment standards, there is an assurance that the work will not diminish the historic integrity of the property or historic district.
The QQA is not suggesting increasing either the per-project or the overall cap for the program, so this change should not have a fiscal impact on the state budget.
We have communicated our proposal to several public officeholders and officials, and thus far the idea has been well received. The QQA is laying the groundwork and has secured sponsors to introduce a bill at the next regular legislative session.
Not only will this benefit Greater Little Rock, which is the focus of QQA's mission, but every historic district in Arkansas. We envision this budget-neutral change not only spreading the benefits of Arkansas's Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Act to more
Patricia Blick is executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association.
By Diane Page Harper
Take a torn-up area or an alleyway downtown and invite artists to paint murals. Then have a festival each year to view the new murals. Then call it Freak Alley Southern Fried. There's a Freak Alley in Boise and it's hugely popular and brings in the visitors to local restaurants and businesses. It's a win-win.
Diane Page Harper is an artist in Little Rock.
Embrace nature preschool
By Rachel Parker
Children learn best by using all of their senses. They learn best when they are given room to ask questions, try out new ideas and form their own conclusions. Children learn best when they are able to follow their interests and PLAY! With what we know about how children learn, it only makes sense that the perfect environment for them to learn
Nature provides children with unending possibilities for exploration, especially for young children. Nature also provides an opportunity to build confidence, problem solve and develop perseverance. In a state where mental health issues and childhood obesity are serious concerns, we, the parents and caretakers of the next generation of Arkansans, should focus on preventing these problems in early childhood. Nature Preschool, or Forest Kindergarten as it is sometimes called, is a great way to combat both of these issues. And, as an added bonus, when children spend time outdoors and witness the changes taking place and learn about the plants and animals that share our environment, they will naturally develop a responsibility to care for it.
So how do we work together as Arkansans to get more kids connected to the natural world? Here are some quick ideas: First, ask your childcare
The benefits that can come from young children learning in a natural environment paired with the natural resources available in our state should make our decision to promote nature-based learning in Arkansas an easy choice. We at the Ferncliff Nature School are making it our mission to get young children connected to nature. We think the Natural State has a great opportunity to be a leader in nature-based learning for young children, and as a result develop happy, confident kids that care for creation.
Rachel Parker is the director of Ferncliff Nature School.
Open an all-ages DIY music venue
By Bradley Caviness
I would love to see a free — or nearly free — public space teens and young adults can use to book, promote and perform their own music. There are fewer spaces available in town for underage musicians to play and develop their talent than at any point in the last two decades, which is a
Bradley Caviness is the music programmer for "Shoog Radio" on KABF-FM 88.3.
Help foreign language speakers connect with each other
By Guy Lancaster
My Swedish skills are not the best, but they are much better now than they were back in 2016, before I had the good luck to meet, through friends of friends, two people in Central Arkansas who speak the language. One was a native Swede who had the good sense to marry an Arkansas woman, while the other was an American who had lived and worked in Sweden for a few years. Two years later, our ranks have grown — some have just moved to the area and reached out through social media, while others have lived here for years, rarely meeting other Swedish speakers. If you look around, you'll see that we have a variety of languages spoken here in Central Arkansas. Some of these groups are large enough to have their own institutions — churches, groceries, cultural
Guy Lancaster is the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System.
Make electoral reform a priority in 2018
By Tyler Pearson
Late last year, I was having a conversation with a friend who is an occasional voter. Something she said struck me to the core. While discussing the need for passing legislation that would improve public education, she said, "That all sounds nice, but I just don't believe anything will ever get done." Today, this sentiment seems to ring louder than ever and is supported by polling that shows trust in government is at historic lows. The 2016 presidential election clearly spoke to this. People just don't believe in the system anymore and feel as if their voices are not being heard. Creating positive change at the pace the future demands will require a well-informed citizenry whose voices are not only heard but heeded. Unfortunately, special interest groups are drowning out the expressed needs of everyday people. Anyone passionate about improving renters' rights, protecting loved ones in nursing homes, or ensuring children's access to quality education and wanting to make a difference quickly will find a well-financed and organized special interest group standing in his or her way.
Fortunately, there are several things we can do to help restore confidence in our democracy and substantially improve the odds in
Let's start by implementing automatic and same-day voter registration policies in Arkansas to make it easier for people to access the ballot box. Arkansas consistently ranks among the states with the lowest voter turnout in the nation. In 2012 we were the third lowest and in 2016 we were the fifth. The six states with the highest turnout in 2016 all offered same-day voter registration and as a result achieved turnouts over 10 percentage points higher than Arkansas, which is huge. Additionally, state Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) unsuccessfully championed a bill in 2017 that would have changed the state's "motor-voter" registration at DMVs across the state from an opt-out to an opt-in system. This would have streamlined the process and made it dramatically easier for people to vote on Election Day as well. In today's political climate
Next, and perhaps most pressing, is the need for an independent redistricting commission. After the
Bringing additional transparency and accountability to our electoral process will also require serious action toward curbing the effect that special interest money has on the current system. People have a right to know who is behind political messaging, and state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) has twice filed a bill that, by forcing their backers to identify themselves, would have shone a light on the
Additionally, we should ban political contributions from Political Action Committees (PACs) directly to candidates. This is a very bold move that would set Arkansas apart from the rest of the nation. State Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) filed a bill to do this in 2017 and it was immediately crushed by special interest groups who saw it as a threat to their influence and power. Every election, these groups blatantly abuse this system and dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign war chests of incumbent politicians, which makes it very difficult for challengers to defeat them. In return, they receive
Finally, if our elected officials in the state aren't doing their jobs effectively and break their campaign promises, we should be able to fire them with recall elections. Some 20 other states have such provisions and the issue appeals to both conservatives and liberals alike.
Let's channel our frustrations in a positive direction and make 2018 yet another referendum on the status quo by making electoral reform a top priority.
Tyler Pearson is a sustainable development professional and political activist in Faulkner County.