Columns » John Brummett

Huckabee's slice and dice

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Usually when a politician weasels out, the reasons are transparent. Almost invariably, it will have to do with concerns for re-election, considerations of larger ambition or pressure from financial backers. Something of an exception is Gov. Mike Huckabee’s disheartening abandonment of Arkansas schoolchildren’s nutritional improvement. Those factors may apply, but transparency doesn’t. Re-election? Huckabee can’t run for governor again. He ought to be free of the usual timidity about offending constituencies. Larger ambition? He has fashioned and is embroidering on a national profile based on personal health improvement and healthy policy initiatives. He may, in fact, parlay that into a run for the Republican presidential nomination. It doesn’t follow logically that he would tuck tail on restricting access to candy and soft drinks from vending machines in middle schools and high schools. Pressure from financial backers? The governor committed a transgression of ethical appearances when he accepted use of a boat a few years ago from Coca-Cola. But I don’t think he was compromised to the point of having to sell out school kids’ health. This one is a bit of a puzzler. Could it be that the governor believed what he said in a public letter Friday to the chairman of the state Board of Education? Could it be that he finds it an unfair unfunded mandate and a violation of preferable local control for the state to impose on local school districts these proposed standards from a Children’s Health Advisory Council? I refer to the one by which schools might have to hire more physical education instructors and the other by which kids in the middle and high schools couldn’t engage vending machines for Cokes or candy until after lunch. No, that can’t be it, unless the governor is blatantly inconsistent. He took fully to heart a couple of years ago the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling that public education in Arkansas is exclusively a state, not local, responsibility. He nobly and bravely proposed to consolidate many of the school districts he now applauds as wiser and more appropriate authorities than the state on schoolchildren’s nutrition. He wrote that local school officials know better than statewide experts in exercise and nutrition what’s good for local kids. One can only wonder: Is there a locality in Arkansas inside which a Coke and a candy bar are better for kids than a lunch with fruit and vegetables? If so, why don’t we tout the tourism benefits? All of America’s kids will want to go to this magic land. The governor is quite right that it’s an unfair unfunded mandate to tell local school districts they must provide physical education classes in such a way that they are forced to hire new people, since the state’s school funding formula for the next two years has made no allowance for that. But that premise doesn’t extend to requiring vendors to include healthy choices in soft drink machines, nor to keeping the devices off limits to kids long enough not to spoil lunch. If Huckabee is worried about the existence of school district contracts with soft drink bottlers by which the schools’ income from those contracts is based on consumption, he could merely suggest to the state Board of Education that the new guidelines be imposed only at the end of any such contracts. The best guess is that gradations of the usual factors apply. While Huckabee may not be beholden to the soft drink lobby, he’s always been close enough to it to be sensitive. While he wants to run for president in part on the profile of newfound fitness, he probably also realizes that imposing Big Brother on schoolchildren’s snack and beverage choices might not play well with those arch-conservatives of decidedly anti-government attitudes who must be obliged in national Republican politics. So, he slices and dices. Meanwhile, bottlers need only to stay ingratiated with local districts that like their money.

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