When Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock opened in 1991 it had 850 students. This year there were 7,947 students, the largest enrollment of any of the state’s other 21 two-year colleges. It even ranks fifth in the number of students who attend the state’s four-year colleges.
Of course, the main reason is that Pulaski Tech is in the biggest county in the state. But another reason is that most of the students in two-year colleges have jobs and want to learn more so that they can get a better one. Of course, there have always been more jobs in Pulaski County than anywhere in the state, but if the county doesn’t start paying attention, some day Northwest Arkansas might have more jobs than any place in the state.
Meanwhile, to keep the flow of new students growing, Pulaski Tech has to have help. The board of the college is seriously thinking of asking those of us who live in Pulaski County to help pay a little every year to help the school get bigger and better.
According to the college president, Dr. Dan Bakke, his college receives less money from the state than the other two-year colleges. Also, Pulaski Tech doesn’t get what 18 two-year colleges get — tax money from the counties they are in. The legislature has raised educational appropriations slightly, but it didn’t help Pulaski Tech much because it’s a college that’s different from the other two-year schools.
For example, 18 of the other 21 junior colleges get money from their counties or cities, but Pulaski Tech doesn’t. That’s why it has to charge $75 for every credit hour. Its average age of students is 28, an age when they usually aren’t getting money from home. Fifty-one percent of the students are black, and many of them are unable to pay the tuition and fees. Also, 67 percent of the students are females, who are seldom paid as much as males.
So the college board is thinking that in November it might submit to county voters a 3-mill property tax, which if it passed would cost the average home owner about $5 a month and give the college something like $12 million more every year. The college would use it to hire more full-time teachers, who now represent only 32 percent of the faculty. Dr. Bakke says that at least of 60 percent of the faculty should be full-time teachers.
The college’s long-needed campus center, which will give the students a place to study, to rest and to eat, will finally be finished in February. But other buildings are needed. One would be a physical education building, which would allow students to learn the subject and also practice it. Arkansas has thousands of young people who are dangerously overweight.
The college needs to have more tutors and advisers. Many of its students know little or nothing about college. Ninety-two percent of them are the first child to go to college from their family.
Happily, Arkansans are getting more interested in improving education. Last week the new education commissioner, Ken James, fired a sadly incompetent superintendent in Helena and dissolved the seven-member school district board who had hired her. The Arkansas Department of Education has warned 16 other districts (including the Pulaski County School District) that the same thing might well happen to them if they do not improve their financial and teaching methods. Thank the legislators who, in 2003, passed a law that gave the department a power needed for years in this state.
It’s also good that some smart lawyers are challenging the legislature’s rule that all school districts should get the same amount of state money — $5,400 per student. Lawyers for small school districts said that the legislature’s rule would make it impossible to meet the requirements of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Other lawyers want their districts to get enough state money to meet the salaries of teachers in Little Rock and Rogers. It’s also good that the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state had to provide adequate and equitable schools for all the state’s 450,000 public school children, and the court will soon decide whether the legislature should give more money to schools.
Until recently, such things weren’t even being argued. There wasn’t an independent organization examining the state’s poor education program until 10 years ago when the Arkansas Public Policy Panel was created. It tells us now that in the literacy of eighth-graders, Arkansas kids rank 32nd among the 50 states. However, black eighth-graders rank 46th. In mathematics, overall Arkansas eighth-graders rank 46th, and the scores of our black eighth-graders were the poorest in the country.
I asked Dr. Bakke if he thought last month’s raising of taxes for two years to build a North Little Rock baseball stadium would make it impossible to get enough votes to help Pulaski Technical College. “No,” he said. “I think we now want both of the two big E’s — entertainment and education.” Let’s hope he’s right.