Columns » John Brummett

From train wreck to meltdown

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State Sens. David Bisbee of Rogers and Jim Argue of Little Rock are those rare state legislators. By that I mean they are experienced in the era of term limits by having served in both the House and Senate. They have demonstrated good intentions and sound judgment. They offer leadership, at least on the more manageable Senate end of the state Capitol's third floor. My separate conversations with them Tuesday revealed the depth of peril in the special legislative session now taking place. When the competent and well-intended begin to see the matter with diametric opposition, dangers have suddenly multiplied exponentially. People talked in recent weeks about a "train wreck" at this session. Just this week "meltdown" emerged as the word. A train wreck is a derailment. Meltdown is when Arkansas Nuclear One blows up and radioactivity is in the breeze headed your way. Bisbee agreed with much of what I had written that morning, though he hadn't seen it. It was that court control of our public schools simply must be avoided. It was that while consolidation is the appropriate, wise and eventually inevitable initiative, it is not specifically a mandate of the court ruling. It was that we must not use the decline of consolidation in the House of Representatives as an excuse to fail to meet explicit court mandates to enact a new school funding formula and put significantly higher amounts of money into it. Appointment of a court master to run our public schools would be an economic development disaster, Bisbee said. The spectacular growth in Northwest Arkansas would end abruptly, he said. A homebuilder himself, he said the land he'd started clearing for a new subdivision would go undeveloped if the state's public schools became court-run. Bisbee was alarmed that the governor of his party, Mike Huckabee, was saying openly that court control of the schools might be the best thing, considering House defeat of consolidation. He was distressed that Huckabee had indicated he wouldn't support new taxes without consolidation. He was surprised when he called business and civic leaders in Northwest Arkansas to encourage them to lean on Huckabee and found them to be in agreement with the governor. A couple of hours later, Argue also was standing firm with Huckabee. He told me he was having a hard time justifying higher taxes on his Little Rock constituents to send more money to tiny rural school districts funded with maybe 90 percent state dollars, then to hire a physics teacher - provided one could be found - to teach two kids. He said I was technically correct when I said consolidation wasn't specifically mentioned by the court. But he said I hadn't dotted all the i's. The only way to improve and equalize educational opportunities for all kids statewide, he said, is to spend significantly more. But it is unfair to taxpayers, he said, to throw new taxpayer dollars at a wildly inefficient structure that renders real equality unattainable or certainly cost-prohibitive. He said "restructuring," his euphemism for consolidation, "absolutely must be part of the package." I countered that it must be part of the eventual solution, but not necessarily part of the immediate legislative package. I asked him if he'd ever gone along with an imperfect legislative solution. He replied, "When have we not?" I asked Argue the direct question: Was he with Huckabee in saying we shouldn't raise taxes without consolidation and that court control of our schools might be the best alternative? He said that he was, except that he amended my question to describe court control as potentially the "least worst" alternative. He also contended that if court control comes to pass, I ought to blame the small-school obstructionists in the House and not the governor or him. I don't have a problem assigning most of the blame that way. I can't say about all of it.

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