Columns » Bob McCord

The third time

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Maybe, just maybe, Arkansas may soon be taking steps toward improving its public schools and turning out better educated kids. If so, it will largely be the work of the Arkansas Supreme Court, which last week said that the state legislature was not obeying the state’s Constitution, which requires “a general, suitable and efficient system of public education.” It’s the third time that the court has told the legislature to give more money to the schools, and it’s not done yet.

The court’s decision scolded the legislature for not implementing two laws it passed in 2003 to provide more state money for the schools, and the court’s decision said the laws had to be put into operation by Dec. 1, 2006. Of course, this means that the governor will have to call a special session of the legislature next year.

Two of the justices, Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justice Jim Gunter, dissented. Hannah wrote: “There is no question that this court lacks jurisdiction to control, monitor, issue order to or otherwise direct or coordinate branches of government.” That’s a bit startling. If the Supreme Court can’t do it, who can?

One reason why the legislators did not put the two laws into action or do other things to improve the public schools was that they became irritated when discovering that most of the school districts were hoarding tax money rather than spending it to build buildings, to pay teachers more, to expand the curriculums, etc. It’s said that the total amount of money the districts have tucked away getting interest amounts to $1.1 billion.

So the legislators ignored their 2003 laws and voted to give every district — large or small, rich or poor — the usual $5,400 per student in 2005 and a $97 increase per student in 2006. All the workers in state agencies receive cost-of-living pay increases, but those in the public schools do not.

Every state that borders Arkansas is spending more. In 2004, Louisiana was spending $7,263 to educate each child and Texas was paying $7,168. The average amount in the United States is $8,922.

We are indebted to the 49 school boards that worked for months to persuade and hire good lawyers who successfully forced the Supreme Court to declare one more time that Arkansas public schools were unconstitutional. Then there was the state Department of Education report that revealed that young people in 274 schools (including 22 in Little Rock) failed to meet the minimum scores of tests in math and literacy.

Governor Huckabee now says that more school districts should be consolidated — those that have fewer than 500 students rather than 350 students as it is now. This has to be done because the best teachers will simply not go to small towns to teach.

In a year’s experience in a Little Rock elementary school, students got more attention from teachers who were paid more money, and the result was they made much better scores on one national standardized test. The money was given to the school by Walter Hussman, owner of Arkansas newspapers.

At a Rotary Club meeting, I heard a speech from a school superintendent that I thought would never come from one of them. He was Ken Kirspel, the new superintendent of the North Little Rock schools and a long-time teacher and principal.

He said that he tells his daughters to do their homework because there are people in other countries who will take their jobs. Why would Bill Gates (the software inventor) pay $70,000 a year for a computer programmer in the U.S. when he can hire one for $7,000 in India who is just as good? Also: “Math isn’t what it used to be.”

He said, “I support athletics but they should not drive the train.”

There is too much of a gap between white, black and Mexican students. “We have to get around this gap because it is too deep at this point.”

He likes the idea of saving money by having only one superintendent in all counties except maybe a few big ones. The bill was introduced by Sen. Ruth Whitaker of Cedarville at the last legislature, which had too many things to handle. “It will come back because it is too good an idea,” Kirspel said.

And what may be most encouraging, Ben Mays, a veterinarian in Clinton, has just been made a member of the state Board of Education. He’s the fellow who for years has been collecting the information that many districts are spending more on athletics than education and how dumb that is.




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