Make education the state’s top priority – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Do you ever ask yourself why our state is always at or near the rear of almost whatever has to do with quality of life, such as per capita income, or vaccinations, or college graduates, or a dozen other issues?

Do we as a state have an extra helping of the stupid gene? Are we just naturally a bunch of yahoos who are dumb as a sack of hammers, destined to occupy the bottom of almost every category you can imagine? Why can’t we do better?

There are two reasons we find ourselves in this situation–the two biggest mistakes this nation has made in its history. The first is allowing slavery, resulting in the second, fighting a civil war.

The root cause of Arkansas’ miserable rankings are buried in the past. Consider the results of the war on Arkansas and the rest of the South: the unbelievable loss of life, with hundreds of thousands killed, and the South’s economic destruction, leaving its residents destitute. On top of that, Reconstruction steepened the loss.

The war and resulting poverty created resentment of newly freed Black Southerners, and Jim Crow was instigated by angry whites as their only way to resist. We’re living with the results of those actions and mistakes of our forefathers.

The education of the average Southerner easily became a victim because if you’re having trouble putting food on the table, sending your kids to college becomes almost impossible. Combine that with the “separate but equal” doctrine in U.S. constitutional law, which stipulated that racial segregation did not necessarily violate the equal protection mandate of the 14th Amendment, resulted in segregated schools and colleges, producing an under-educated population.

Separate but equal was a joke. Before the mid-1950s there never was equal opportunity for Black Southerners. But the lack of education in the South is still with us, and it’s no surprise that the more educated states have a higher standard of living than most Southern states.

We have made some progress, but we still have an under-educated population compared to the rest of the nation. Let’s look at one example: covid-19 vaccinations in Arkansas and Vermont.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Vermont is similar to Arkansas in many ways, but a major difference is in its education level, which is ranked 18 nationwide compared to Arkansas, which is 41.

Vermont’s health care is ranked 18 compared to Arkansas’ 49. Those with at least one covid vaccination shot: Vermont 80 percent, Arkansas 40.8 percent. It seems that the better educated you are, the more likely you are to get vaccinated, and the less likely you will be to die from covid-19.

We are the bottom or very near in almost any quality of life measurement, and I believe it is directly tied to our overall low education level of our population. As an example, the state Legislature has no educational requirement.

If we are ever going to be in the top tier of states, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem. An alcoholic can’t break the habit unless he or she admits they are an alcoholic.

Therefore, from the top of our elected officials to every member of the Legislature, we must rank improving educational opportunities for every high school graduate as our first priority, overriding every other item on the legislative calendar.

That means we need to get off abortion and guns; surely we have enough anti-abortion and pro-gun legislation. Our recent legislative session didn’t even have improving the education of Arkansas people on its agenda.

Here are several obvious ways to attack the problem:

  1. Give our teachers a huge raise–at least 30 percent to 40 percent–and give our school districts the money to substantially increase their staff.

  2. Create a facilities fund of at least $500 million to bring the brick-and-mortar part of education up to national levels.

  3. Increase the mandated age of school education–currently 5 to 17 years of age–to 4 to 18, and create pre-kindergarten and post-graduate high school studies.

  4. Make full two-year scholarships available for all junior college and trade school students in the state.

  5. Create and fund a degree enhancement program for all public and private school teachers and administrators, with salary increases contingent upon receiving advanced degrees.

Of course, our elected officials will moan and say we can’t afford the cost of bringing our citizens’ level of education up to national standards. We can’t afford not to.

If we can spend megamillions on sports programs, cut income taxes, and run a $1 billion surplus of tax receipts, we can find the funds to implement these programs.

Until we admit the lack of education is the root cause of our poor national standing in numerous quality of life standards, we will always be saying “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Email Richard Mason at [email protected]