Columns » John Brummett

Souls sold in whole or in part

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For the moment, Arkansas politics remains decided by the state’s static white rural culture. Republican strongholds in Northwest Arkansas and Central Arkansas suburbia temporarily are offset by Democratic strongholds in Pulaski County and in black voting areas of Jefferson County and the Delta. That leaves the pivotal voting in statewide races to the white rural areas of the north-central, northeastern, south-central and southwestern sections. Out there they hunt, fish, go to church and treasure their teeny local schools with maybe enough high school kids for a basketball team, so long as no one gets in foul trouble. So, if you intend to be the next governor of Arkansas, you need to sell your soul to this white static rural culture. You can best do that by standing up for God and guns, against gays, and, most of all, in favor of keeping the little local school open. In this context, we beheld a major political development Monday in Eureka Springs, where the Arkansas Rural Education Association — an anti-consolidation outfit that by its very name seems to acknowledge that rural education is different from regular education — held its summer conference. Here’s how the governor’s race fell out from the conference: Asa Hutchinson, one of two Republican candidates, looks like the favorite. Mike Beebe, the only Democratic candidate, has a chance, but will be hamstrung by the fact that he seems willing to sell only part of his soul. Win Paul Rockefeller, the other Republican candidate, is not much of a factor. Let’s take Win Paul and Asa first, since only Beebe is interesting. Rockefeller wasn’t even invited to speak. That’s because he’d said nice things about Gov. Mike Huckabee’s consolidation proposal. Some of the small school people said he’d ridiculed rural Arkansas, which, I’ll wager, they’ll say about this column. So it goes. I’m not running. Hutchinson sent a videotape, perhaps because he’s otherwise detained appearing on cable news shows. But in that videotape he said the right and soul-squandered thing: We mustn’t have consolidation because local control is best and parental involvement would be sacrificed, and we must send these tiny school districts all the “resources” they need — meaning inordinate tax money to provide education via their cost-inefficient structures. Beebe was torn between what he knows to do to get elected and the truth his personal honor won’t let him quite disregard altogether. He, too, came out against further consolidation. He said we needed to wait to see if the existing reforms worked. But then he was asked a rural-loaded question. These small schools can’t keep up with the big schools on teacher salaries. What as governor would he do about that? Beebe could no longer constrain that nagging honor. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said. Then he explained that the courts have ordered — quite logically, I’d add — that money must follow children. Imagine that. So, as long as small schools cling to their static existence, they’ll get less state aid for teacher salaries than the big booming districts. Otherwise, he warned, they’ll need to find a way to put their teachers in front of greater numbers of students. There’s a word for that, and it starts with “c.” Lavina Grandon, a teacher at Valley Springs who leads the anti-consolidation effort, told a reporter afterward that Hutchinson was better on consolidation than Beebe and that the attorney general needed to be as strong as Hutchinson or he would face serious political consequences in rural Arkansas. That is, Beebe needs to say we should defy the court and send subsidies to little schools. As a gubernatorial candidate, he might want to say that. As one beset with nagging remnants of truth and honor, he doesn’t want to say it. As the state’s attorney general, he absolutely cannot say it. So, mark your scorecard: Advantage to Asa. Problem for Beebe. Oblivion for Win Paul.

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