- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, Nov. 25, 2015

Opportunity knocking

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is back from China. And he is bringing home a prize.

The governor was in China to meet with officials of the Sun Paper Co. about a proposed $1.3 billion pulp mill to be built in Arkansas.

And it looks like south Arkansas is the favored area for the plant.

Hutchinson and Sun Paper’s chairman signed a letter of intent to cooperate in a study of the mill’s potential.

That means the deal is not set in stone, but it’s closer to reality.

The governor’s office says no location has been chosen, but Sun Paper expects to select a site by May.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission - which is working on the deal with the governor’s office - thinks south Arkansas is the natural choice in the natural state because of the abundance of timber land.

According to Sun Paper, the mill would bring “several hundred” jobs.

The Texarkana area has a lot of timber. And with two paper mills nearby, we have an experienced workforce. Seems like a perfect fit to us.

Now, Sun Paper may have already chosen a site. It isn’t unusual for a company to play it coy on such things. Land prices could shoot up if owners knew a major corporation was sniffing around. But what if the final location is really up in the air? That spells opportunity.

It may well be that the Arkansas-side Economic Development office and the Chamber of Commerce are already working toward bringing Sun Paper close to home. Possibly economic development officials and chambers from various cities in Miller County and neighboring counties as well.

If so, great. If not, they had better get cracking. It would be great to land this project - and the jobs that go with it - for our area.


Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 1, 2015

Time to settle down

Tests are a part of life for students.

Sure, one can argue all day long about whether testing really measures the quality of education happening within local classrooms. It’s highly doubtful they can with all students. Tests can fail to give a complete picture of a child’s educational experience. But without them, that picture would be even foggier.

Debate rages - and always will - within educational and government policy circles about the impact and benefits of standardized testing, which is as much about evaluating teachers and schools as it is about learning how well a student is performing. Neither goal is served by keeping Arkansas’ testing approach in a constant state of flux.

For years now, Arkansas school administrators, teachers and students have pursued educational goals as set out by the Common Core State Standards, which outline levels of achievement for students. In short, the standards create a yardstick for what students - regardless of where they’re learning - should know at various grade levels. Wrongly maligned as some sort of tool of subversive indoctrination by some, the standards are a vital component of setting high standards for students across Arkansas. A governor’s working group saw room for a few tweaks but largely embraced the Common Core standards and rejected the anti-standard mythology that had grown up around them.

The sacrificial lamb, however, was testing. Arkansas had made the decision to administer tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, commonly known as PARCC. But the governor’s task force recommended changing to the ACT and ACT Aspire testing regimen.

The difference is about more than the alphabet soup one could cook up from the tests’ names.

A recent report in this newspaper said most Northwest Arkansas students will spend less time taking standardized tests than they have in the recent past. PARCC took about 10 hours of the school year; the ACT Aspire will take less than five.

School administrators say they’re pleased, trotting out the oft-used educator perspective that teachers ought to teach and students ought to learn, and none of that happens during annual testing. Truth be told, educators have never been big fans of the politically inspired idea of standardized testing. It puts a lot on the line. Teachers and school-level administrators have to sweat whether their students will perform well on such tests, the scores of which can influence teacher and school performance evaluations.

President Obama, perhaps not surprisingly given his backing by teachers’ groups, has urged schools to reduce the amount of time spent on testing because “learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble.”

A pithy statement to say the least, it’s also obviously accurate. The question isn’t whether standardized tests are the be-all, end-all of education. The real issues are about what their role is in education policy and how they can be effectively administered.

Arkansas’ approach lately has wrecked the benefit of standardized testing, at least for the time being. First Arkansas replaced the state-level Benchmark testing with PARCC, which it then jettisoned after only one year. The result will be several years in which Arkansas has no significant, comparable data by which it can measure how well the state’s children are performing against the Common Core standards.

Arkansas has wasted both time and money, largely because of political reactions to misplaced suspicions. But the change is done. It’s time to move on.

Is ACT Aspire the answer? As Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, suggested, the answer arises not from how long the test takes but from how much usable data it produces about student education.

“It depends on the quality of the data we get back,” McKenzie said. “If the doctor is going to get me in and out of his office in 10 minutes, that’s fantastic, unless I really need to get some tests done to find out what’s going on with me.”

We hope Arkansas’ political leadership is finished batting around the pinata of educational standards and standardized testing. It’s time to let things settle down so the Arkansas Department of Education, school superintendents and other educators can get a sense of how well both the students and the schools are doing.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 1, 2015

Barbarism on parade

Another day, another report on the barbaric way this state treats its disabled children, in this case autistic kids whose families aren’t always told about their mistreatment. That was the word out of the U. S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights: “We’re seeing injuries of spiral fracture, kids getting injured, kids getting manhandled,” said Debra Poulin, legal director of Disability Rights Arkansas. “We see all kinds of crazy things that you just wouldn’t really believe.”

But what else would you expect when, alone and afraid, autistic kids are put into isolating restraints by the “adults” in charge of their school systems. Bureaucracies have their policies but not necessarily their reasons. To note one practice Ms. Poulin cites, “(There’s) the ‘hamburger,’ where somebody put a mat on the floor and a child on it and the 200-plus pound principal got on top of another mat and stood on the child …”

Is that a disciplinary measure or just plain old masochism?

Despite all the reforms that are passed, and all the regulations the Legislature enacts year after year, these stories continue to make headlines. And well they should in a society that calls itself civilized but doesn’t act that way. For the barbarians are not only at the gates, or even within the citadel, but inside each of us who just reads the headline and turns the page.

Familiarity even with barbarism breeds contempt, and many of us no longer bother to pay attention. It’s just another day, another report, ho hum.

All of us in Arkansas need to wake up and pay attention at last, for these barbarities are being committed in our once good name. Scandal gives way to scandal, then reform to reform, but nothing seems to rouse us from our stupor.

Maybe it’s the human condition: How easily we become conditioned to the inhumane. But the mark of society that develops is not one that just keeps repeating the same mistakes but changes its ways. And even identifies with the least among us, the hurting and abused, especially those being abused by our lawful authority. For here the people rule, or are supposed to. Surely it is not too late for Arkansas to change its shameful ways - our shameful ways.

Once again a subject that should inspire moral introspection becomes reduced to only a legal dispute between teams of lawyers, each with their own departments and agencies to represent.

No, nothing is simple, certainly not at law, or often enough outside it, when ethics are debated. And few things are sadder than the reduction of ethics to a matter for official Boards of Ethics, while the heart of the matter - like the ethical treatment of children, lower-case and unofficial—is swept aside, lost in legalisms and officialese in general. Beware when ethics is reduced to a department of ethics, and barbarism gets an official stamp of approval. That doesn’t mean it deserves approving, only that another way has been found to avoid our moral/ethical responsibility for the evil committed in our name.

In the meantime, a united group of responsible officials - like the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, Association of Arkansas Counties and the Mental Health Coalition of Arkansas - is pushing for the state to create a program that would pay for at least one 16-bed unit for the mentally ill who otherwise would wind up as just another part of the prison population instead of getting the special attention they need.

To quote Sebastian County’s sheriff, Bill Hollenbeck: “We’ve reached the point now where we know what we are doing is not working. I can’t understand why we’re continuing to do things the same way when we know we are getting the same bad result.”

Maybe that’s because barbarism can be habit-forming. Yes, there’s always an excuse for it, like the cost of reforming the system, but there’s no excuse for it.

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