Columns » Max Brantley

Special needs kids

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The budget cut for Arkansas Governor's School is old news by now, but I was reminded of it when Gov. Mike Beebe visited the school last week.

The six-week residential program for 400 rising high school seniors is 30 years old. Modeled on a school in North Carolina, it arose from the efforts of devoted believers in education for gifted and talented students. They happened to include my mother-in-law, the late Martha Bass, who was a gifted education supervisor in the state Education Department.

I had mixed feelings at the beginning. I'd attended Louisiana's Governor's Program for  Gifted Children, a three-year residential summer program that begins in the sixth grade. I had fun. But I often wondered about the wisdom of designating certain students “gifties,” as the college students we schooled among called us, and whether the extra effort was fair to other students.

My mother-in-law set me right, as she did on many things. Gifted students can be forgotten in conventional school settings. They have special needs, sometimes unmet, as much as those with learning disabilities or the athletically gifted (to name one class of students lavished with special attention and facilities).

The Arkansas Times each year sponsors an Academic All-Star Team. We require a short essay from each nominee and it's striking how often they mention Governor's School as the most significant experience of their lives. This is particularly true, I think, for kids from smaller high schools with narrower course offerings and communities with narrow outlooks. The narrow outlooks threatened Governor's School for years. Religious conservatives attacked it for the ideas it might plant in the minds of children expected to think only what their parents and preachers told them to think.

Money and changing times may yet prevail where the small-minded could not. The school will be cut from six to four weeks next year as part of a new three-year contract with Hendrix College, which has hosted the program by competitive bid since its inception. The program was slowly starved under the Huckabee administration, held to a $740,000 annual budget for a decade. Now, thanks to leadership of departed Education Director Ken James, it will be cut back next year to four weeks, rather than be further starved to cover six weeks of operation under the same budget. The budget will drop to $640,000, which is a bit more per day.

A student urged Beebe last week to get behind a fund-raising drive to prevent the reduction, which inevitably will mean less course content. The governor enthusiastically endorsed the idea, but it's a prohibitive long shot.

More than budget issues are at work. After all, in a state budget that devotes billions to education, a few thousand dollars more or less for Governor's School were inconsequential.

Summers are shorter because school years are longer. Students have competition from other attractive summer programs. Some want to work to pay for luxuries or because they simply must.  Such pressures have reduced the number and quality of Governor's School applicants. A shorter program might be good for the school. It will survive for at least three more years, unlike now-defunct counterparts in some other states.

I wish my fair-minded mother-in-law was around to counsel me on how to view all this. But I believe she'd at least regret a decrease, rather than increase, in the state's commitment to our best and brightest students.

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