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Serious about schools 

It appears that the Department of Education, legislators, the governor and would-be governors are at last getting ready to improve the education of Arkansas’s students.

On Jan. 13, the department took over another two school districts that were broke and getting nowhere — Eudora and Midland. The school boards were ousted, the Midland superintendent was fired and the one in Eudora resigned. “They were spending more money than they were taking in,” said State Education Commissioner Ken James.

On Jan. 16, the Waldo District, which has 324 students, 26 fewer than a town must have to operate a district, asked Magnolia to take it in, but Magnolia’s school board said no. The department has given Waldo two months to find another district to go to.

Legislators have announced that their education committees will meet five times in February to study what the schools need and how to pay for it. The findings of the Koret Task Force from the Hoover Institution that made a study of our schools (for free) have apparently gotten the legislators’ attention. Its major criticism of the state’s curriculum was in social studies – too little history and civics, no attention to the people who built the country, the importance of democracy, etc. The task force also said that every teacher must have a degree in the subject they are teaching, or at least pass a rigorous test of the subject. It summed up by saying that Arkansas’s curriculum was “educational mediocrity.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee has been holding meetings with nine teachers throughout the state who are telling him what they think is needed to improve Arkansas schools. It’s a good idea, but it’s too bad the governor won’t let the press cover the meetings. The people would like to know what the teachers have to say as well as the experts from the Hoover Institution who have gone so far as to put their findings on the Internet.

Huckabee has also said that better teachers ought to get better salaries. That takes some courage because the teachers union, the National Education Association, doesn’t like the idea, believing that all teachers teaching the same grades should make the same money. Well, the change is happening in many cities. Last week Houston’s school board by a vote of 9 to 0 adopted the so-called “merit pay plan for teachers.” It will start with $3,000 per year for those teachers whose students show improvements on tests, and in the future, the extra merit pay might reach $10,000 for each of those teachers. As expected, the Texas teachers union opposed the idea.

The two Democrats who want to take Huckabee’s place, Mike Beebe and Bill Halter, also think that better teachers should get more money. So does the Republican candidate, Asa Hutchinson, and he believes the extra money should come from growing the economy of Arkansas.

Halter even wants to start a lottery in Arkansas to raise the money to improve the schools, and Beebe, while not enthusiastic about a lottery, said that it would be useful to raise the money, which, according to Halter, would produce an unbelievable amount of as much as $250 million a year to spend on education.

But why not a lottery? Forty states, including four that adjoin Arkansas, already have lotteries. They are not liked by some people who believe lotteries would tempt poor people to spend too much of their money buying lottery tickets. And according to a recent survey, they are right — 58 percent of blacks in the states play the lottery as compared to only 50 percent of whites. But would playing the lottery harm poor people as much as raising our sales tax? Already it’s one of the nation’s highest, and we can be sure it would be the tax that would be used because it’s the only one that the Arkansas legislature can raise by a simple majority vote.

Whatever it is, we have to do something to educate our young people as well as those in so many other states that have recognized this obligation sometime ago. Most of us know of bright young teachers who have left Arkansas and gone to other states. We’ve got to try hard to keep them here.

A large percentage of Arkansans live in towns with a population of 2,500 or in no town at all. Of course, it’s unlikely that a very bright young teacher would ever go to places that small. Many won’t even go to a town with fewer than 10,000 people. So school buses making long trips twice a day are essential, but kids in these days of iPods won’t complain as much as they used to. Also, a really determined school district in a town that’s too far away from many rural people could open a dormitory for high school girls and another for high school boys so they could go to the school and stay in that town for five days a week.

To truly educate our young people, we need to come up with new ideas and put them into action right now.


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