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OPINION

Arkansas Students Deserve Better

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I love asking questions. You never know what kind of response you will get, assuming you do get a response.

I am reminded of my teaching years. Young children are especially unpredictable when answering questions. In my art classes I would ask a few questions to frame the context of our project that day. I recall a discussion about front and back yards with a kindergarten class. A little girl raised her hand and said, “Last night mama and daddy had a big fight and mama hit daddy in the head with a frying pan then threw his **** all over the yard.” There was a collective gasp as the children realized that a bad word had been said out loud, then silence as they waited to see what I would do. Teachers have to think fast, carefully choosing responses when a child acts out, because usually there is fear causing the outburst.

The response from Sen. Irvin and Rep. Evans to my column about ESSER funds made some valid points, although I must admit that I did briefly lose consciousness during the encyclopedic history lesson on adequacy. None of that is news to educators, but I suppose it was worth the ink since there are those outside the education world unfamiliar with how Arkansas schools have progressed since the 1980s. Nonetheless, no part of that history is relevant to the use of federal ESSER funds. The issue at hand was whether or not those federal funds could be used for bonuses. It turns out that according to the memo mentioned by Irvin and Evans from the US Department of Education, the funds can be used for that purpose, although superintendents have been warned since day 1 not to use them for bonuses. Also true is the fact that many districts may not have been aware of this memo. One can only guess at the reason for this lack of information; however, I noticed that date of the memo was Dec. 16. That means that if the ADE actually received it before Christmas break, there was still a holiday following its release. Given that school districts had been submitting their ESSER plans for some time, maybe ADE did not want to disrupt those plans by suddenly changing guidelines, but that’s just a guess. Throwing ADE under the bus? Not fair.

I stand corrected on several points. It is true the governor did not place the pay raises on the call for the special session, then remove them. He announced that he would like to include the issue with the tax cut, but dropped the idea. The key point being that the legislative majority was unwilling to consider permanent raises from the record surplus. By the way, I can’t wait to spend my $150.

I also retract the terms “ordered” and “yanked” since those appear to be triggers requiring a full paragraph in response. I have heard those words spoken in anguish by administrators around the state as they attempt to implement recommendations that in many cases are impossible. The Arkansas Legislative Council (ALC) does have some oversight of appropriations, but there is some question as to the legality of changing the rules in the middle of the game. Gov. Hutchinson is far more informed on this subject than I. He said, “their action to rescind $500 million in spending authority for the Arkansas Department of Education is contrary to the Council’s statutory authority and contrary to the principles of separation of powers underlying the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act. Just as the General Assembly could not recall a bill from my desk that had already been signed into law, ALC may not undo the lawful appropriations under Act 199 through a parliamentary maneuver.”

No part of last week’s response adequately addressed my original question about the dilemma faced by local districts. Yes, I understand that local decision-making as to the use of the ESSER money is a fact. Also a fact, when funds have already been spent or committed to projects, common sense dictates that in smaller districts there is not enough to finish those projects plus pay bonuses. Locally there are good plans that will benefit our students. This includes air conditioning two very hot gymnasiums, expanding classroom space with modular buildings, a food pantry, additional paraprofessionals to help with learning recovery, among other important upgrades. In order to pay the recommended bonuses, those projects will not only be put on hold, but likely will not happen at all.

Districts are not only struggling with this unexpected ESSER fund debacle, but also severe teacher shortages. Low pay is a significant factor. The legislative council discussed this crisis on Aug. 18, a week after the special session. Some members think the shortage is because of teachers moving into administrative positions. Bless their hearts. How is it possible they still don’t get it?

Meanwhile, a good friend of mine in another county has a granddaughter in kindergarten whose teacher is not licensed or trained. The poor child had a horrible first day and said the teacher was grouchy and yelled all day. Understandably, she doesn’t want to go back.

While lawmakers waste time arguing about all this, there are children all over Arkansas who deserve better. The solution? Qualified teachers who can afford to pay their bills while doing this very important job.

The governor, ADE leadership, and a bipartisan group of 51 legislators were in favor of passing bills in the special session to fund permanent pay raises for all school employees. What I have seen by the remainder of lawmakers on this issue amounts to an unyielding imposition of will, and outright rudeness towards those who dare to disagree. This does not look like the kind of representative government one would expect in a democracy.

Stone County Leader, Shelley Smith, spuddling

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