There it was, right on the front page of the Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal: Arkansas school children are more overweight than any other kids in the country. About 32 percent of those in kindergarten are overweight, and by the time they get to the fifth grade, 42 percent are obese, or nearly so.
This means a great many children eat mostly fried or junk food at home and school because there is much ignorance and poverty in our state. According to Dr. Fay Boozman, director of the Health Department, the result is that those children “will get sicker and won’t live as long as other children.” Unfortunately, our state has fewer college graduates than other states, and 11.5 percent of our people make less than $10,000 a year.
Obviously, we need better schools and pre-schools, and in the last few years we have moved in that direction, thanks primarily to the state Supreme Court ruling that Arkansas schools were “inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional.”
Governor Huckabee and a handful of legislators managed to persuade the legislature to consolidate small school districts, reducing the number from 308 to 254. Also, the legislators decided to give the public schools an extra $380 million starting this year. Our hopes are that the school boards will campaign for higher school taxes in their districts, get the carbohydrates out of the school kitchens and drink machines, find good teachers and pay them well, and stop hiring old football coaches as principals and superintendents.
Many school buildings throughout the state are in bad condition. Every one of the 6,400 buildings in the 254 districts was inspected, and the estimates are that the repairs could cost as much as $1 billion.
Where is that one-time money going to come from, and what about the additional money to improve teaching that will have to be spent every year? Already we are spending 56 percent of the state’s general revenue on the public schools, and while they are the most deserving, there are dozens of other agencies that have to be funded. Happily, some of our smartest and bravest have begun talking about raising more money, and without raising taxes.
Governor Huckabee would like to reorganize state government, reducing the 53 departments to 10, which seems to be a fine idea. Also, he would like to consolidate more of the little schools. So would state Sen. Jim Argue, the man who led the consolidation movement in the legislature. And in a speech in Fayetteville last week, Argue suggested that some of the state’s two-year colleges also should be consolidated. We have 17 of them. Some of them are within a gallon of gas of each other and are teaching the same courses.
Last week, Ben Combs, a Hot Springs resident who handles publicity for Tunica County, Miss., where the gambling casinos are, told the Hot Springs Downtown Development Conference that the city ought to persuade the legislature to pass a bill that would allow legalized gambling (video poker, etc.) in the city. Taxed by the state, such devices would undoubtedly produce a lot of money, since 432,000 Arkansans went to Mississippi in 2002 to play games like that.
Another speaker at the conference was John A. Riggs, a Little Rock businessman who once was a state senator who fought hard for improving our schools. Because every state surrounding Arkansas has gambling of some sort, Riggs said that Hot Springs should take the lead in promoting a state lottery, taxing it and dedicating all of the money to education.
Thirty-eight states have done this. I think Riggs has made the best suggestion of all.
n n n
After last week’s debate, the New York Times quoted an aide of President Bush as saying: “John Kerry didn’t pass the living room test. I don’t think he came across as anyone that people want to have in their homes for four years.”
The owner of a business in North Little Rock polled his customers after the debate. 47 percent for Bush, 53 percent for Kerry.
Don’t give up.