As usual, the legislature is moving slowly in its first weeks, diddling with bills that are needless and shying away from what the state must have.
Some legislators are excited about moving the primary elections from August to February because a few of them think Arkansas will have more influence on who is elected president. Democrats and Republicans could vote for their choice, and therefore our delegates could go to the conventions and throw their weight around as to who gets nominated. This is ridiculous because Arkansas has only six electoral votes, fewer than 36 other states. Besides, not many Arkansans bother to vote. The Arkansas turnout last November was almost the lowest in the country.
Despite critical needs for more money for schools and other things, in less than a week the senators already have voted 33 to 0 to do away with a 3 percent income tax surcharge.
For some strange reason, Sen. Jerry Taylor of Pine Bluff is trying to repeal the 1913 law that when a sheriff is told there’s a gambling house in town, the sheriff has to go to it at once and arrest the owner.
Rep. Jeremy Young Hutchinson, 28-year-old scion of Asa, has introduced HB 1033, which would ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and require any pregnant girl under 18 to get the consent of her parents before having an abortion. Of course, this would make it tough for the girls who are most likely to need abortions — those who don’t live or get along with their parents.
Rep. Roy Ragland of Marshall wants to be certain that textbooks in schools say that the only legal marriage is between one man and one woman, making the books line up with the hard-hearted amendment to the Arkansas Constitution that unfortunately was approved by the voters in November. Does anyone think that it’s a good idea for politicians to write our textbooks?
Arkansas’s greatest problem is the number of poor, uneducated people who live here. It and Mississippi are the poorest states, and Arkansas will always be that way until it has better schools. Do you know that 240,500 of the 455,500 students in Arkansas schools are eating free or reduced-price lunches furnished to poor parents by the federal government? And since 2001 the number of poor students getting these meals has increased 17 percent.
This was reported for the first time Sunday by Phillip Reese in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. So legislators wouldn’t have known about it unless they had read the newspaper or someone told them at one of those free meals that lobbyists give them almost every day in Little Rock at Ciao, the Chenal Country Club, the Peabody Hotel, Cajun’s Wharf, etc.
Now it’s true that in the last two years the legislature and Governor Huckabee, forced by the Arkansas Supreme Court, have consolidated many of the small school districts and raised teachers’ salaries. But much more has to be done, and what we’re hearing the most about education so far in this session is how to raise more than a billion dollars to repair old school buildings. Those dilapidated buildings should be torn down and the kids sent to a better school no matter where it is. I like Cedarville’s Republican Sen. Ruth Whitaker’s idea — have only one superintendent and one school district in every county.
Modern, safe school buildings are needed, of course, but it’s what is going on inside that is important. We can see what’s necessary in Arkansas by looking over the newest ranking of school statistics in all the states by the National Education Association.
Despite the school-district consolidations of last year, Arkansas, the 32nd state in population, still has 310 school districts. Only 18 states have more. Three neighbor states — Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana — are sparsely settled like ours and have many more students. Yet, they have less than half the number of districts Arkansas has. Arkansas ranks 18th in the number of school districts. Florida has only 67 districts and has six times the number students. Maryland has twice as many school kids as Arkansas and gets along with only 24 districts.
Arkansas spent an estimated average of $5,863 to educate each student in its public schools in 2004. The average for the country was $8,156. Texas spent $7,330, Louisiana $7,075, Oklahoma $7,011, Missouri $6,947, Tennessee $6,205 and Mississippi $6,093.
Citizens began worrying about our schools in November 2002 when the Supreme Court said that Arkansas schools were “inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional” and ordered that they must be improved. But last year after the consolidation of some districts and a study report on the needs of the school, the justices on a 4 to 3 vote declined to continue supervision of the Lake View school funding case. Let’s hope that the governor and the legislators won’t also surrender.