- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 5, 2016

Have power, will travel

When voters in Fayetteville and Springdale cast ballots to install Charlie Collins and Robin Lundstrum, respectively, as representatives in the Arkansas House, how many did so because the two Republicans seemed like the best candidates to resolve tensions in the Middle East?

What? Did you miss the headlines? Such as the one that said “Collins, Lundstrum, Netanyahu: The Razorback Path to peace #NeverYield.”

We missed it, too.

It wasn’t until last week their trips made headlines here at home. The lawmakers disclosed on their 2015 personal financial disclosure reports filed with the secretary of state’s office that they had accepted a Nov. 30-Dec. 8 trip to learn, as Collins put it, “about the whole Middle East situation.”

Cost? They each reported the trip cost $11,431. But voters shouldn’t concern themselves with such things. The cost of their trips were, after all, covered by the American Israel Education Foundation.

The charitable foundation since 1990 has raised money and spent it teaching “members of Congress and other political influentials” about the U.S.-Israel relationship “through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite.” Naturally, such lessons cannot be learned without traveling to Israel. Don’t tell all those American university professors teaching Middle East studies that they’re wasting their students’ time.

Yet again, the principle of open government gives us a glimpse into exactly the kind of special treatment one can take advantage of once he or she convinces the Arkansas voter to put them in public office. Come on, folks. Why do Arkansas lawmakers need to be treated to a free trip to Israel?

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Lundstrum answered. “It is not a tourism thing. I have always wanted to do it. I am a Christian. Israel is a pivotal part of the world. I would love to get other people to go.”

Maybe if those other people get elected to the state House of Representatives, they’ll get the chance.

And that’s just it: Lundstrum’s comments suggest this was a trip of a lifetime for a Christian from Northwest Arkansas. Fortunate for her she got elected and was able to take advantage of Israel’s lobbying effort. But exactly how do Collins’ District 84 and Lundstrum’s District 87 benefit from their state lawmakers being treated to a lengthy stay in Israel? Do state legislators need to know anything more about the Middle East than the people they represent? It’s not like Bibi will be speaking to a joint session of the state House and Senate anytime soon.

They aren’t the only Northwest Arkansas lawmakers taking trips funded by someone with a desire to influence them. State Reps. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers and Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, and a few others went to Denver last Oct. 22-23 for a conference. The cost - $950 reported by Hodges and $1,796 by Dotson - was covered by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit formed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The foundation has garnered some criticism because of a history of putting corporate sponsors whose firms could benefit from state education reforms in the same room with lawmakers. See, nothing is free.

Hodges also listed the gift of a $1,294 trip a week after Denver to attend sessions with the Foundation for Government Accountability of Naples, Fla. That nonprofit “promotes better lives for individuals and families by equipping policymakers with principled strategies to replace failed health and welfare programs nationwide.”

These Northwest Arkansas lawmakers aren’t alone. Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, took a paid trip to Paris to join leaders of other state Senates in discussions, paid for by a nonprofit group. Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, reported the State Legislative Leaders Foundation paid $5,614 for his trip to China from April 18-24.

Why do the state-level lawmakers take such trips? Because they’re there. To paraphrase a Democratic president who once described a planned long-distance trip, lawmakers choose to go on such trips not because they are hard, but because they are easy. And traveling on someone else’s dime is always more fun.

The question for voters is why these lawmakers need to be so “educated,” although the more accurate term is “lobbied.” Now, under the specifics of state law, these trips aren’t illegal and weren’t directly funded by lobbyists, but who’s kidding anyone, here?

Paris? China? Israel? At least a better case could be made if the lawmakers had traveled to newly opened Cuba, a potential market for Arkansas rice and other products.

These trips are funded by people who have a mission to influence, and the result is expensive trips for lawmakers that most of their constituents will never get to take.

We appreciate the transparency, such as it is, delivered by the financial reporting documents lawmakers are required to file. It would be nice, however, if lawmakers had to articulate in some clear fashion precisely how their districts and Arkansas benefit from the “work” involved in these trips.

Shouldn’t they at least have to give something like a book report?

If such trips are critical to the job done by state lawmakers, one can certainly argue the state - not special interests - should pick up the tab.

In that context, it’s doubtful most of these trips would be funded. Which explains why there’s nothing to bar them.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 2, 2016

An advancement

Thanks to the state Board of Education, the city of Little Rock and even the whole state of Arkansas took a giant step forward for public education Thursday night. The state board voted to allow the highly rated eStem and LISA public charter schools to expand. While neither expansion will meet the immediate needs of the more than 9,000 students on the waiting lists for both schools, the decision is a step in the right direction anyway, with several hundred more students to be served this coming school year at LISA and 450 more the following year at eStem.

Maybe now the controversy created by the opponents of these charter schools can recede, and the entire community can work toward improving the traditional public schools in Little Rock. We are convinced that if schools with a large majority of low-income, minority students like Terry and Carver can earn an A rating from the state, so can lower-performing schools. Including all the other schools in Academic Distress.

Baker Kurrus made the right move when he reconstituted Baseline Elementary. When a school is reconstituted, a new principal is hired and the teachers resign, giving the new principal the autonomy to hire whomever is best, maybe including some of the released teachers. It gives the new principal a chance to create a new culture and environment for learning. This is what needs to be addressed in Little Rock, especially with the middle schools. The last rating from the state had every middle school in Little Rock with a D or an F. We expect Forest Heights Stem to have a higher rating next time, but again, that was due to reconstituting that school. It is so popular that it is now at 198 percent of capacity. This shows the tremendous public demand for traditional public schools in Little Rock if they are high quality schools offering a chance at an excellent education.

We are pleased to see Baker Kurrus establishing a new middle school in west Little Rock and a new high school in southwest Little Rock. He has the same opportunity here to establish new rules for discipline and learning. But it can happen in existing schools, too, by reconstituting them. It will not be easy. But it can be done if the focus is the best interest of students. Mr. Kurrus has the intelligence, the drive, and the work ethic to do it. If he will, the community needs to give him all of its support.

It’s important.

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