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Impulsive Beebe

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Delay sometimes has merit, and then it's called deliberation. Given a choice between implementing immediately a policy change that could have a substantial adverse effect on public education, or postponing the change for more study at no risk to anyone, a lot of people would consider postponement the wiser course. But there's only one governor, and Mike Beebe is not listening to Nervous Nellies. Plunge into a poorly understood scheme to de-emphasize Arkansas history? Why not? “Full speed ahead!” the intrepid governor cries, rather like Archibald Yell at Buena Vista. “Damn the consequences!” The consequences in Yell's case were severe; Beebe's decision will endanger only Arkansas schoolchildren.

Settling a dispute between Arkansas historians and the state Education Department, the governor aligned himself with the bureaucrats, basing the decision on his expertise in interpreting “body language,” a skill that he says allows him to separate sheep from goats unerringly. One of the historians must have moved in an incriminating manner, perhaps shifting uneasily from one buttock to the other, during the governor's meeting with the opposing factions. (Our governor relies on body language, and our Supreme Court values the theories of malcontent law professors above the plain language of the law. We can't help but worry.)

Beebe said that the imminent start of school required that the new policy, which entails a general reshuffling of the social studies curriculum, be enforced at once: “We've already got lessons planned. Our teachers are ready to go.” But we know teachers who are very ready not to go, and ready or not, none of the teachers will have the textbooks necessary to support the new policy. The books won't be ready until next year. All this suggests that the imminent start of school requires that the new policy be held up, not the other way around. Avoiding harm is easier than undoing it.

On the eve of school, no one's shown a need for urgency in adopting the new policy. In fact, the need for a new policy anytime remains unclear. Is the Education Department seeking higher scores on federally mandated tests — a form of “teaching to the test”— as some have suggested? Are the proposed changes make-work to justify the paychecks of high-ranking Education Department employees? Is geography —world geography — also being shorted under the new plan, and if so why? Some might argue that students don't really need Arkansas history. Some in the Education Department may feel that way, but are reluctant to say so. But it would be hard for anyone to claim that students don't need geography in today's tiny world. Much could be clarified in a year's time.

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