No Soap (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

The best line in Rob Reiner’s cable-TV staple “The American President” comes right after Richard Dreyfuss concludes a passionate speech by declaring that he’s running for president. Michael Douglas, as the sitting president, comments, “Sure glad he cleared that up ‘cause those people were about to buy some Amway products.”

I was ready to buy Gov. Mike Huckabee’s old weight in Amway products when he spoke to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce last week. When he first outlined his ideas for complying with Lake View in January, the governor sounded courageous and inspirational. Over the summer, he was flexible and conciliatory. Last week, he sounded frustrated but determined. I wouldn’t want to be the next guy who asks Mike Huckabee to make the taxpayers of Arkansas subsidize a few more inefficient, underachieving school districts.

The business community, at least in the urban center of Arkansas, understands and supports the need to upgrade the state’s educational system — and the quality of its product — in order to save Arkansas from falling farther and farther behind in the ever more competitive global economy. And the necessity, long overdue but now economically unavoidable, of widespread consolidation of the state’s too-many, too-tiny school districts is completely obvious to businesspeople who make daily decisions to balance economy with quality.

I’ve been using this space for periodic sermons about the inanity of our top-heavy educational system since 1999. (Back in those pre-Lake View days, Huckabee himself opposed forced consolidation.) Not one of our regular readers has written or called to disagree. With the exception of some notable billionaires who don’t want to part with any of their hard-earned federal tax cuts unless the state government adopts their precise vision of educational accountability, most businesspeople with whom I come in contact seem ready to pay more to save Arkansas from what Huckabee has rightly called a “death spiral.”

Of course, I’m here in Little Rock, and so are most of our readers. It’s undoubtedly much easier to favor a radical change — for someone else. But Lake View demands — orders — radical changes in this entire state’s philosophical and financial approach to education. As David Matthews, attorney for the Rogers School District that intervened in Lake View, has pointed out, educational equity is no longer defined as equal dollars flowing from the state to the student, and failure to provide an adequate education with those dollars can no longer be blamed on the local school board and administration. The legal question has been decisively answered: Educating every Arkansas child is the state’s responsibility.

Most radical of all, Arkansas can no longer set aside x dollars and declare whatever education those dollars can buy to be adequate. Under Lake View, the state has to define adequacy and then come up with the dollars to provide it to every single child, no matter how small or poor the local tax base.

***

Stacy Sells Pittman, senior vice president of Cranford Johnson Robinson Wood and president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, would make a heck of an Amway saleswoman. She’s a flack’s flack, so smooth that the line between the PR professional and the “real” Stacy is sometimes hard to spot.

Last week, the Society of Professional Journalists invited Pittman, Sen. Jim Argue, Rep. Harmon Seawel and Kellar Noggle, president of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, to discuss the special legislative session on education reform that starts today. Argue, Seawel and Noggle talked about the kind of legal restraints and political differences the General Assembly will face, the kind of nuts-and-bolts details that political reporters live by.

Pittman alone worried aloud about the future success and happiness of the children who are being failed by an unconstitutional educational system.

When she leaned over Sen. Argue to make an emotional plea for Rep. Seawel to finally “do better” by the 450,000 public schoolchildren in Arkansas, she didn’t sound like a flack or a lobbyist. She sounded like a mother.

 

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. E-mail her at gmoritz@abpg.com.)