Report from the Legislature – #36July 30th, 2012 by Sheilla Lampkin
Greetings from the Arkansas legislature! While the first week in July was rather slow due to the 4th of July, matters have heated up faster than the weather since then. I assume that nearly everyone knows that health care is the hottest topic at the Capitol as well as the nation. While there seems to be little interest in compromise, only time and clear heads can produce any real solution/resolution to a legitimate problem. (Incidentally, I am not referring to the Affordable Health Care Act, familiarly known as “Obamacare”, but to the state efforts to make Medicaid payments more cost efficient. Unbeknownst to some, the two topics are different subjects.)
Other topics and issues have risen to the forefront though as the 89th legislative session looms. One topic in the forefront of my mind is economic development. Last week I participated in a discussion with Grant Tennille, AEDC director, and Morris Jenkins, director for strategic planning, about the state’s economic development incentive programs. While I did not become an overnight economic development authority, I did appreciate their remarks about the value of “war chests” and other incentives, as well as their statements about an educated workforce. They, and I, believe that education is the key to a satisfactory solution for workforce and economic development. In fact, Director Tennille clearly stated that no industry refuses to come to Arkansas because of taxes, but because of the lack of this educated workforce. We clearly must keep pursuing a better educated and trained workforce.
Director Tennille suggested 5 prerequisites for new attracting new businesses/industries to Arkansas: 1. An educated and trained workforce
2. Expansion of homegrown businesses
3. Greater investment in higher education
4. Stability in our tax structure
5. Elimination of corporate taxes on capital reinvestment.
Interesting! These points should be given top priority in the next session.
I also attended a meeting as part of the Monticello delegation to visit Director Tennille in his office regarding a sizeable grant for the Monticello rail spur project. I’ll let MEDC Director McDaniel announce the results in her own time, but it was a very satisfactory meeting from our standpoint.
Education is always at the forefront in my mind and many topics are being held for discussion and work projects currently. One is the Academic Challenge (lottery) scholarships. As of July 1, 13,300 college freshmen had accepted the scholarships; another 800 had not responded. Isn’t that great? It would be even greater if all would stay in school and attain college degrees.
Although I am still weighing these options in my mind, more emphasis may soon be directed toward remedial work in two-year colleges in the future. A shift to favor more nontraditional students for scholarships is also emerging because these students tend to have a higher percentage of completion rates and attain higher grades too. This is believed to be true because they tend to be more mature and more goal-oriented, as a whole.
While Arkansas may have some problematic areas in education – like funding – Education Week magazine has placed Arkansas 5th nationally in 2012 in its overall ranking according to its Quality Counts publication. These rankings are a composite score from 6 areas – Chance for success; K-12 achievement; school finance; the teaching profession and standards; assessment and accountability; and transitions and alignment – and attest to the work done by our schools in their endless pursuit of excellence in achievement and accountability. I am proud of, and for, Arkansas’ schools. As stated earlier, we all have our problematic areas, but most of Arkansas’ schools and teachers are doing the best they can with what they receive, and I am proud of them.
Other topics for our educational meetings included updating rules and measures for public charter schools in Arkansas and the amount of debts owed to Arkansas’ higher education institutions by the Department of Workforce Services. These debts allegedly occur because students charge “unacceptable” items at campus bookstores; such as candy, T-shirts, backpacks, etc. If an item charged is “unacceptable”, Workforce services will not reimburse the money. I can understand their point, and this should be made clear “up front” to the students. Evidently these debts have become quite a problem and must be brought under control.
The last educational item dealt with the new rules promulgated as a result of Act 1209 that establishes the Teacher Excellence and Support System. In plain English, this is the latest version of teacher evaluations. As a former classroom teacher, I undoubtedly share the opinions of most teachers about this topic. However, pilot programs will be instituted in the 2012-2013 school year and the program will be statewide in the 2014-2015 school year. The intent of this legislation is stated as a means of support and promotion of professional development for teachers in our schools. Administrator evaluations are to also be a part of the evaluation processes. Maybe we should evaluate in our schools like we do in our sports programs.
Our Task Force for Substance Abuse Treatment has also met. We talked about treatment efforts and funding from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in Arkansas as well as prescription drug takeback programs. We also discussed treatment centers and the lack of “best practices” data as well as drug courts and studies about the possible correlation between mental health and substance abuse. We plan to seek more data concerning “best practices” and more funding for successful treatment programs in the next legislative session.
This completes my report for this issue. Please know that I am your fulltime representative working for you and all the people of Arkansas.