Arkansas Week: Education Legislation & Natural State Initiative
Support for Arkansas Week provided by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, The Arkansas Times and KUARFM 89. Hi, everybody. I'm Donna Terrell, and thanks for joining me for Arkansas week.
Coming up, a discussion with supporters and opponents for Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas learns act. What will passage mean for education in the state of Arkansas? We'll talk with representatives of two different groups. And then later in the program, Arkansas is marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of its first State Park. We'll talk with the secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. About that, and a new initiative designed to further grow outdoor recreation. But first, as the governor's education legislation has been considered by the legislature, many have expressed concerns that there hasn't been enough debate about the consequences of this massive omnibus bill.
Joining me to share their thoughts are Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, and Ryan Norris, state director of Americans for Prosperity. And as we record the program on Friday, February 24th, the bill is still pending in the House but seems to be advancing quickly. The number of sponsors for the legislation alone suggests the governor has the needed number of votes for passage. So just wanted to throw that out there that we're actually recording on February 24th. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you. I always say this, I love it when we have people in studio because I do a lot of Skype interviews. It's always nice to not be sitting here alone. Exactly. I think my last one was via Skype.
It was. So, yes, last week was via Skype. This week I have, I have, I have humans with me. So I'm hoping we can have a lively debate on this. And Ryan, I'm, I'm going to start with you because I know you hosted an education rally that Governor Sanders spoke at the capital. Shortly after she was elected governor, why do you feel in terms of the learns act, why do you feel? Changes need to be made.
Well, I think that there is broad consensus that our education attainment in the state of Arkansas could use improvements and then the conversation then turns to what would the solutions look like. And so the learns bill in our estimation incorporates changes that we think would be improvements to the education systems that we have here in Arkansas, customizable education being a top tier issue for us. You agree with that? Well, I agree that we do need to have some changes in our education system. We need to have more funding, we need to have more specialized support.
So many of the items that are in Governor Sanders bill, we do support. But our concern is the expediency in which this is going through and the magnitude 144 pages and to try to read and comprehend all of that. It takes time and we know that parents and educators are asking for additional time. There was great debate yesterday on the Senate floor regarding the fact that individuals need to have more time to digest this. When you say great debate from every I wasn't there, but everything that I've been hearing there's been lively or some I guess arguing about this bill as as as it moves forward so quickly.
Ryan, do you think maybe, you know, we, we should have put the pause button on it just for a minute that let me just say this. The governor said in a press conference that she believed that this bill would pass. And I think the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans also believe that. But why not have more discussion just so all voices can at least be heard? Well, I think that this is the components of this bill have been discussed for the better parts of decades, and so there's nothing. Surprising in here that hasn't been talked about in other legislation that's been voted up or voted down. Adding in additional voices to the components that are student support, such as the enhancing the tutoring or giving enhanced focus on literacy K through three.
Those are things that we've been talking about but haven't been able to get accomplished. And the learns Bill does put that into play. So you can't take just one session and say that nothing has been discussed when it's been discussed for the better part of decades.
But this is a huge, huge bill. All of these things have been discussed, but now you're putting them all together and there are some things that have been discussed that people, some people, I should say not all, some people don't really want correct. That is correct. And that would be the expansion of the vouchers. Yeah. Let's talk about that. Let's talk about those. Yeah. Well, why is that a problem? Because, I mean, realistically, a lot of people would like to have, you know, choices in terms of where they can send their kids.
And and just like Governor Sanders said, not be stuck to the area code or the the ZIP code. Excuse me, that you live in. Right. And every school should be a great school for our children.
Parents should not have to question whether their neighborhood. School is great or not, but they do. They do. But it should be a given that they have a great neighborhood school. And why? Because we should have the funding to provide those resources, to have the funding to recruit and retain quality educators.
And I'm not just talking about classroom teachers. We need to increase the pay for all educators. That includes our professional bus drivers, who are the 1st and the last individuals who see. Our children, we need to increase school counselors, school nurses. So we agree with expanding early childhood education.
That is a great program. But what about accessibility? Those are the issues that continue to arise and the questions that parents are asking, because what we do know is that there is a great there is a school in every ZIP code within our state of Arkansas. But what we don't have? Is a school where a child can use a voucher in every ZIP code and that that was something that we were discussing last week with two senators is this seems to really be targeting diverse. Areas of our state and not so much areas where you know I mean there there really aren't choices you know I mean other than home schooling in in in many areas of this state it's, it's really you know you go to this school or you home, you're home schooled.
So you know I mean what why do we have to shape it the way that we have. So to that point a study was recently done that said that went and looked at rural. Students and the proximity that they had to private schools, and it was that most of the children in the United States are within 10 miles of the potential private school. Also what's not taken into consideration because of the, you know, the desire to protect the status quo and double down on what has not been working for Arkansas is the fact of innovation, that there are new innovations taking place such as virtual charter schools. We have those in Arkansas. Those can be an option.
I even participated in Florida in a virtual 3D. Wear a headset and I'm in. I'm in the library of Cambridge listening to a professor you know who is educating me via virtual reality. So there's a lot of opportunities in this to customize your education. In fact, with the way that the vouchers are being set up, it will allow you to possibly go part-time to a public school and then use some of those funds to access a private school curriculum or a virtual school curriculum. So again, customizable education is is key, and you don't have to now.
You can connect to education without having it be geographically accessible. It's accessible through through the World Wide Web. Now this is really what we're talking about here now. And and you're the first to throw in the whole virtual and the and the head goggles and all of that stuff.
I'm sure it was, but that's really not what we're talking about in the state of Arkansas right now in terms of school choice. No, that's not what we're talking about. We we're talking about the potential for innovations and we do have virtual charter schools. Is that correct? There, there are virtual academies. And so you do have virtual academies, then he's making a good point here.
Would you would you not say, well, so as I have said, we agree that parents have a choice for their children because they want what's best for their children. 90% of parents continue to choose public schools. OK, but the issue with our private schools and our charter schools, including the virtual academies.
Is where is the accountability, the accountability and the transparency because even though you have a public charter school. Not all of the funds that are in those public charter schools are public funds. They also have private funding and they have lots more money when exactly to educating children and then you know, I guess and we're going to move on from this specific specific aspect, but I guess you have to factor in for you know some low income or even children who are struggling.
Would they really have the same access to these private schools so they. Right now with succeed scholarship or the philanthropic, they're very much, they're economic based or needs based and so they are going to private schools already through those two scholarship programs and those are being exceeded in the number of applicants every year. That's why you're seeing the philanthropic and the learns Bill moved from 2,000,000 to a $6 million cap is because there's been a very popular push on the application process as to where more people are applying than are able to be accessed to receive access. And the $2,000,000 right now, let's talk about the teacher Fair dismissal act and and Carol gets a smile on her face when I mentioned that.
I'll start with you on that. In the House we were expecting to see some changes with how that looked. How would you want it to be phrased? How, how would you mold that specific aspect of this bill? That is a great question. Essentially I want it to remain as it is.
That would be how I would mold it. But let me just say this and and and I and and I agree with this that somebody, there are people in general who are in jobs and they should not be. They're tired of going to work every day. They're not engaged and they're not really doing what what needs to be done on the job.
So that of course applies to some teachers and this would be an opportunity to make sure that. Are our students get the best teachers? So when I phrase it that way, what are your thoughts? So I agree. Every child should have a great teacher. And every teacher should be well respected.
With the teacher fair dismissal educators, all educators even though this is related to the classroom teacher but yet there is the the public employee Fair Hearing Act also that ties in with the teacher fair dismissal employees deserve due process and this and this eliminates that and yes this would eliminate it. So hopefully hopefully the the new outcome of this will be better and maybe that aspect. Oh, yes. I mean, because we look different. We want to make sure that our children have educators who want to be there and we want them to have the highest quality educators, those that are dedicated to the students. That's what our students deserve.
That's what our parents deserve. That's what I, as a parent and and an educator expect for my child. OK, we're down to one minute. And usually when I get to this point, I I've, I've really run out of time.
So I'm going to let you have the last word on this. Well, so you know on the fair dismissal act it's 10 pages of 144 page bill that's being struck through that's a lot of additional protections that they are giving to to educators that you and I probably don't have the the, you know we don't get those kind of accommodations. But I believe that the I have faith that the administrators and the superintendents and the principals will act in good faith and making sure that they have the right staff and are rewarding those that are doing excellent jobs and having it. Process A, do you know, process for getting rid of those that aren't doing as well? The job. OK, we're going to have to leave it there. And I know how. I'm sorry.
Just say something. Carol Fleming, we have run out of time. Ryan Norris, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you. We'll be right back.
A proclamation signed by the governor marking 2023 Arkansas State Parks Centennial year in 1923, Petty Jean was established as the first State Park legislation was signed into law by then Governor Thomas McRae authorizing the acceptance of land for state parks. Joining me is Mike Mills, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Thank you so much for being here and happy anniversary. Well, how do you celebrate 100 years? I mean, I'm not quite there yet, but the state parks are and we're excited about it. OK. So how much does outdoor recreation factor into the overall economy for the state? You know, it's huge. Much more than most people think.
When you look at all of the lodging and BRB O's and boat docks and marinas, mountain biking, climbing, all of those kind of things put together. It's, it's a huge part of the Arkansas economy, exactly this. It's actually the second largest industry in Arkansas and that's really what I was getting to. Are there any numbers associated with that? That you can throw out. You know, there are, but unfortunately I don't have them right in front of me and they're too big for me.
Just to remember every day, I totally understand you've been involved with state tourism in that sector for nearly fifty years. That's what I have here on paper. So in in the time that you've been involved, how would you say things have progressed in terms of where we are now? You know, when I first got involved in tourism, which was actually 49 years ago, we did not have a seat at the table.
The legislature, the governors really didn't even recognize tourism as an industry. And over the years that has changed. Once again, we're the second largest industry in Arkansas.
And so we now have a seat at the table. We have a 2% tax fund that we charge to ourselves, which then goes in turn to. Promote Arkansas and you know that started off, I was the Director of Tourism 40 years ago.
I had a $544,000 budget to promote Arkansas. When the 2% tax was passed, we started off with about 11 or 12,000 and it's now over 20. And so we really now have the capability of promoting Arkansas the way we should. That's amazing.
And of course you promote it as the natural state, I mean everyone. Those Arkansas, the natural state and and I will tell you when people come here and they see the beauty of our state, they love it and they go back and tell their friends. I was, I was traveling not so long ago.
I was down in Florida and some friends had come here to to visit me a few years back. And one of them was telling everyone seated here at our table how great this state is and how beautiful it is. You know, in my history, I've, I found it in owner resort on the Buffalo River. And so traveling around the United States and even the world, you go around the room and you ask people what they do and when they got to me and I said, well, I'm just a canoe operator on the Buffalo National River.
That was going to be the topic for the next 20-30 minutes. With no doubt, I have no doubt. I wanna ask you. An executive order signed by Governor Sanders last month created the Natural State initiative. What is that? What does it do? Well, this is really putting her husband in charge of an initiative, a council that actually meets and discusses better ways to.
Find outdoor recreation opportunities to lessen the red tape to take advantage of those opportunities if you're a small business and then to look at the overall outdoor recreation economy and how it affects all of our Kansas and looking for places that are ripe for increasing that economic opportunity. And in your mind, any thoughts on, on how to go about doing that? I know the governor's husband is going to to head that up, but I'm sure you have some ideas. Right off the bat.
Well, of course, when you look at the number of people 17 that are on this Council and when you look at those names, there are a few of us in the state government part of it, but many of them are outside that realm and bringing their perspective and and voices into this realm. Well, give us it's, it's it's like a board of directors. When you get a whole bunch of smart people together and you focus on one subject, they will come up with new and correct ideas. And we talked about the the governor's husband Brian who's who's on on the on the Council, who else is on this this advisory committee. Well, first of all, you got Hugh McDonald who is a secretary of the commerce. You have Austin Booth who is head of the Game and Fish and and just the three of us working together is sort of a a new and bolder look at how to do outdoor recreation, each of us contributing our parts and and that's state government and they got Bill Schemmer, heimer from the green project at the University of Arkansas.
You have representatives from the industry, you have representatives from educational institutes, you have representatives from manufacturing institutes. And so all of those people combine just really make a great team. I love it, absolutely love it. I can't wait to see what actually comes out of that advisory committee. And with all of these great minds just making outdoor activities and recreation even better, let's talk about. Another area that that's, that's in your realm, um, on April 22nd, the reopening of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
That's in Little Rock. And for people who may not recognize the name, it's the former Arkansas Arts Center. You know, I think of crystal bridges. I think of how great and wonderful crystal bridges is, is this? How will this compare to that? And it's going to be nice to have something on this side of the state. Well, certainly the art displays there will compare. We don't, we own a lot of the art and we, you know like most museums we move that those displays around every six months over a year or something like that, depends on what display is there.
And so this gives us the all new center. It is. It's going to be exciting for Central Arkansas and really for all of Arkansas because people travel all over this state and and they come to Central Arkansas a lot. And so it just gives us another tourism incentive. Amongst the other museums and displays that we have in Central Arkansas.
And I'm gonna tell you, I I didn't realize how much I missed the Art Center until it was gone. You know, I would go there for entertainment different. You know, it was a, it was a venue. It was a place where people could have different activities. I'm a part of a group where we would take schoolchildren there, you know, just just to to see the exhibits and also add other dimensions to that.
So how will it look now in comparison to, you know, being a venue, a place for people to go to have events and things like that? Well, there there will be a lot of reflection opportunities within the building itself and outside the building when it's nice as spring, summer and fall. But when you add the Arts Center to Mosaic Templars and historic Arkansas museums and the old State House, just think of the opportunities. You have four really great museums with tremendous art displays in each of them and and so it's it's going to be a really really neat addition to what we already have and you know what I'm glad you mentioned that because it's really important to point out you know like for example you mentioned the Mosaic Templars. A lot of people don't realize that these are this falls under parks and rec and tourism and all of that and and and it's not a separate entity it's part of the state and and. Part of what your department offers in terms of tourism. You know anyone who has never been to Mosaic Templars or historic Arkansas Museum or even the old State House, prepare to be odd because these places are just fantastic with arts and different types of arts and and you know even a person like me came out of the mountains and all kind of stuff.
I just can't help but. I stand there and I look and I I see creative people and I see their works that are modern or 100 or more years old. I mean they're they're just it's it's an incredible opportunity. I know you almost bring tears to my eyes when I think of the the beauty in this state and especially when you talk about some of the museums that we have and I I really hope people get an opportunity if they haven't already to really enjoy some of this. So how do you preserve? How do you preserve all that? We have to keep people coming back.
That would be people outside of Arkansas as well, as well as our own people who live here. Well, you know, I have a challenge question. How many museums are there in Arkansas? Wait, are you asking me this question? Well, I'm just asking you guess. 1000 there are 150 plus museums in the state of Arkansas, 150 plus. So think about that you can spend. Weeks going to all these museums all across Arkansas, I mean ever from small town to large town, you know, to the Fort Smith where they're going to open the Marshall Museum this summer, to the Crystal bridges to.
The Hampson Museum in Wilson, AR. And so we have just an opportunity with museums alone to increase travel in Arkansas. Well, let me just tell you, I think we're down to one minute left in this in this interview.
2021 was a record-breaking year for visitors in Arkansas, and that was right after COVID. So how do you keep the momentum going? Well, you know what I think it's a snowball rolling downhill. I I don't think we would have a hard time stopping it. And so as long as weather plays a role, particularly in the springtime when you know when you have a lot of outdoor recreation going on if weather pattern patterns often set up in. Weekly patterns. If it rains ever Saturday, then the outdoor recreation.
Decreases some. Whereas if you have rain in the week and then weather patterns are set up for weekends are pretty and increases automatically. But we're going to see more and more tourism no matter what looking forward to and I tell you as a reporter I'm supposed to remain neutral.
Not in this case. I'll be carrying the torch and letting everybody know how great it is here and and and the beauty of our state. You guys are doing a good job and and I must say this tell my friend. Galen, your new PR person that I said hello. I'll do that and we really appreciate you and being here. Alright, thanks so much.
Mike Mills, we really appreciate you. And that concludes our program. We want to thank you for joining us and of course we'll see you next week. Take care everybody. Support for Arkansas Week provided by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, The Arkansas Times and KUARFM 89.