- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, Sept. 22, 2015

Fat chance

A new report says it has the straight skinny on fat America.

“The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America” was released recently by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Woods Johnson foundation.

According to the report, Arkansas is the fattest state, with 35.9 percent of its residents identified as obese. West Virginia and Mississippi are the only other states with obesity levels above 35 percent.

Texas comes in just outside the Top 10 - at No. 11 with 31.9 percent of its residents classified as obese.

The state with the fewest number of obese residents is Colorado. Only 21.3 percent of folks there are obese_which is surprising considering recreational marijuana is legal and we have all heard those stories about “the munchies.”

This isn’t the first time we have heard about the “obesity epidemic” in the U.S. And you can be sure it won’t be the last.

We all know obesity is a major risk factor in adult diabetes, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, some cancers and other illnesses. That adds up to billions in health spending each year.

And we know that most obesity-related health issues are preventable. The problem is getting folks to prevent them.

All these studies and reports agree there is a problem. And most have the same major recommendation - educate people about healthy eating and the benefits of exercise.

That’s fine. Most people already know obesity isn’t good for you. Most know it’s not good for kids either. But experts keep pounding home the message. Some advocates go a bit further. They call for higher taxes or even all-out bans on certain foods. They tinker with school lunch programs. They seek to limit portion sizes by law.

In other words, they believe in the old “carrot and stick” with a twist. To get the chubby donkey to eat the carrot, you have to hit him with the stick.

We question the wisdom of that approach. Especially since it seems that such efforts to “do something” about obesity have essentially done nothing to make Americans any healthier.

We don’t pretend to have the answer. What’s more we aren’t even sure there is an answer to a problem like this. We don’t see how you can force anyone to eat right, exercise, lose weight and keep it off.

So maybe it’s time we stopped trying.

Keep pressing the message. Offer help, encouragement and support. But understand people will make their own decisions. If they won’t change for themselves, they sure as heck won’t change because someone else, no matter how well-intentioned, tells them to.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 22, 2015

A billion and counting

Gosh, it sounded fine in theory. The more poor kids in a school, the more extra money the state should give that school, and after a billion or so dollars spent, the schools should get … better. Or at least that poverty gap embarrassment should close considerably.

Yes, a fine theory. Spoiled by facts.

Last week lawmakers in this state got together, as they sometimes do, to talk about education. They noted that a decade or more back, the Ledge was forced to come up with a new way to fund schools in Arkansas. The state’s highest court had ruled that the education system was inadequate and unconstitutional. Lawmakers came up with the idea to funnel more cash to the poorest of schools, based on a model that measured the number of poor kids.

If, say, 65 percent of the kids in a school qualified for free or reduced lunches, the state would give the school 520 bucks per student that year. If 95 percent of the kids in the school were poor, then the state would give the school three times that much money. The point being that schools serving the poorest children needed more money. Like we said, a fine theory.

Last week, however, lawmakers ran the numbers. And this is what they caught:

They said they couldn’t find evidence that the money has done much good. They had asked for the stats, and once they got them, lawmakers said they couldn’t find any kind of correlation between student achievement and how a district spends its money. The poverty gap yet lives.

“There’s a conclusion to be reached about the data presented in the charts,” said state Rep. John Walker. “The state has not addressed remediating the poverty gap … after all these years and all this money.”

Well, as usual, John Walker is about half right. The state certainly has addressed the poverty gap. It’s thrown a billion dollars at the thing. It’s just that all the extra money hasn’t done any good.

In 2004, the Legislature approved funding for 11 programs and directed the state’s Department of Education to come up with even more. Now the schools have the option of spending that money on 28 different programs. Paid tutoring … social workers … summer programs … professional development …. Money for everybody! Who’s counting? Besides superintendents who’d probably go apoplectic if anybody suggested throwing more money at them doesn’t seem to be working.

So what will work?

How about things that have worked?

Americans are a practical lot. We prefer things that work to theories. What sounds like a good idea at an all-night dorm-room pizza session might not work in the real world.

So what does?

Charter schools seem to work. And on the occasion when they do not work, they can be shut down. Unlike the traditional public schools that can go about failing generation after generation.

And don’t give us the old line about charter schools cherry-picking students. Look at what eStem is doing in Little Rock. It has a lottery to take any kid who’ll sign up. Many charter schools exist only to serve the poorest and most challenging kids and neighborhoods. (KIPP, anyone?)

The argument du jour against charters seems to be that not all parents know about—care about?—options like charter schools, therefore it’s not fair to every kid in every neighborhood in every district. What about those kids, huh, huh?

Disappointing parenting has been around long before this country had a public school system. The rest of us should be doing all we can to provide an excellent education for as many kids as we can. And charters are a step in that direction.

What else works? How about Teach For America? Hundreds of TFA graduates have been named teachers of the year by their schools. (Including, ahem, the 2014 Teacher of the Year in a particular state around these parts.) When compared to other teachers, Teach For America graduates improve students’ reading and math levels—so much so that researchers equate it with the kids being in school for several months longer. What can be copied in that training to make all teachers better?

Theories are fine. But when it comes to educating the future generations, the state should find what’s effective, and fund those programs. Like charter schools, Teach For America, merit pay, bonuses for the schools that have the best test scores, and separate bonuses for schools that make the most progress year to year. Programs that have a proven track record.

The USFL, a flat Earth and disco were fine theories, too. In this country, we prefer to stick with what works.

___

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 20, 2015

The taxman cometh

When it comes to government proposals, how they sound depends entirely on how one chooses to look at them.

Is Obamacare the long-needed reform of health care that provided vital coverage to millions of Americans who desperately needed it, or is it a overwhelmingly massive takeover of health care destined to overburden taxpayers?

Are appropriations to the military the path to a stronger nation capable of deterring aggression around the world, or is it an investment in war-making?

Is use of a personal email server while in high office a deception designed to protect one’s future political plans or … well … no, there’s pretty much just one way to view that.

In Fayetteville, Mayor Lioneld Jordan is asking city residents to accept a government proposal that can be viewed at least a couple of ways.

It’s a move to improve public safety through the hiring of 23 new government employees, 19 of them slated to be long-overdue additions to the ranks of firefighters and police officers who protect the city.

Another way to look at it: In one vote, the City Council would add $1.37 million in new taxes on property owners within the city limits.

That’s a daunting amount, especially when one realizes the city’s eight aldermen can impose it on their own, without a vote of the people. The city has what’s considered a discretionary millage on property. It’s currently at 3.1 mills. Jordan proposes raising that to 4.1 mills. According to city estimates, the owner of a home with a $150,000 appraised value would go from $93 per year to $123 per year.

Jordan’s financial officer, Paul Becker, said the administration has added “very, very few positions” in the last eight years. When it comes to the city’s General Fund - where these positions and funding would be managed - that’s a bit of an understatement. Becker said late last week the number of employee positions added since 2009 totals one.

The positions proposed would cost an estimated $1.45 million, according to Becker. The difference between the new tax revenue and the personnel costs would be absorbed in the existing budget.

The police and fire departments have long been in a holding pattern, both having gone a decade or so without any additional positions. The proposed additions - an 11-member company in the fire department and eight new officers on the police force - are unquestionably a need. The city’s population has grown steadily as have the calls for service to both agencies. Police Chief Greg Tabor and Fire Chief David Dayringer say the time for growing their forces has arrived because they can see response times slipping.

Fayetteville is a town that has devoted a lot of money to amenities that bring value to the community. It’s good to hear a discussion focused on the basic city services all residents rely on.

Still, the prospect of adding $1.37 million to local taxation no doubt raises concerns. Some will say it’s not fair to put the burden solely on property owners. Why not sales tax, since everyone pays that, even visitors to the community?

It’s a fair question, with a good answer: The city can’t pass a sales tax. It already collects the maximum allowed under Arkansas law for operations at 2 percent. A change would require approval of the state Legislature, and given the current mood of lawmakers, it’s doubtful a bill to add local option taxation authority would go very far.

Or better yet, why not fund police and fire by cuts in spending elsewhere? That’s a popular response these days among those who assume there’s plenty of “fat” in government budgets. Becker said that can be done sometimes with smaller expenditures, but an expansion of the work force such as the 23 positions Jordan proposes cannot be absorbed in current spending.

The Fayetteville City Council may have a perception problem. At last week’s meeting, only Alderman John La Tour raised concerns about the millage increase, and that’s certainly no shock. Based on his usual stances, he’s an unlikely favorable vote. He encouraged aldermen to find other places to trim the budget.

He may be wrong, but before elected officials reach deep into the pockets of taxpayers, those taxpayers usually like to see evidence they’ve exhausted all other options. Is a 1-mill increase necessary? Could it be accomplished with less of a tax increase? The question isn’t just whether new positions are needed, but whether the City Council has squeezed everything it can out of the resources taxpayers already turn over to the city.

Maybe it requires a 1-mill increase, but it shouldn’t be an easy vote to achieve, and aldermen need to convince their constituents taking another $1.37 million from their pockets is the only solution. So far, the police and fire chiefs have made compelling cases for the need. Now it’s up to Jordan and the City Council to make a compelling case for taking more money from city property owners.

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