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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Republican’s hard row to hoe

by John Brummett | February 1, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

State Rep. Jim Wooten of Beebe is a Republican. He was one in the late 1970s when then-Gov. David Pryor, a Democrat, made him director of commerce and then of finance and administration.

Pryor didn't ask about Wooten's party. It didn't matter. Ours was then a nominally Democratic but actually nonpartisan state. It was such a happier time.

The first thing Wooten tells me now, after I get him on the phone to talk about a couple of education bills he's filed that seem a little off the contemporary Republican reservation, is that I need to understand that he is and always has been a supporter of the public schools.

A Republican who stands up for public schools ... that's notable enough in itself for a column, especially considering these bills Wooten has put in out at the legislative session.

In addition to declaring that public schools need to be monitored for indoctrinating our kids with un-American messages, an unlikely conceivability, Gov. Sarah Sanders intends to cram through an as-yet unseen omnibus bill consolidating several education "reform" measures. Those include statewide school choice by which taxpayer money would be taken from traditional public schools and given to private or parochial schools in behalf of kids whose parents wanted to transfer them.

Capitol rumblings are that Sanders has been surprised by the level of complication if not resistance. Her omnibus bill is still under wraps and apparent construction. But she has been deferred to by legislators of her party who are standing down to await what she offers rather than filing their own individual bills on public school issues.

That's except for the 81-year-old Wooten, a cancer survivor who, in addition to holding high-level state jobs, spent 25 years on the high school football coaching staff in Beebe.

His main policy newsworthiness previously in his third-term state legislative career was to rail against private schools' unfair advantages over public schools in athletics. So there seems to be a theme with him.

He's put in a bill this time to require private schools that get public money to submit to the same required reports to parents on standardized achievement testing that are required of public schools. That way, parents seeking to exercise their new choice could have the benefit of private-school performance accountability just as they have it for public schools.

Then he put in a real meddler. It would require private schools that accept state-funded vouchers for public school transfers to provide transportation for those transfer students living within 35 miles of the campus.

Wooten's bills apparently do not faze the Sanders administration because, while he gave the governor's office a heads-up on his filings, he has heard nothing.

His bills are pending in the House Education Committee awaiting fiscal impact reports. He says he knows he's up against the tide, but thinks the private-school testing bill for accountability is so thoroughly logical and fair that it might very well pass on the floor if he could get it out of committee.

He understands that the bill to mandate buses or vans by private schools is tougher. I think it might kill school choice altogether in the unlikely but joyous event that it became law. Private and parochial schools might recoil from public vouchers if they had to start doing even some of all that is required of traditional public schools.

"I'm just fearful of what we're going into," Wooten told me, adding that he pondered proposing that private schools that accept voucher students submit to all the regulations applied to public schools. But he said he'd learned over the years not to over-extend and that "everything is a progression." He settled on the most important thing, which is that parents have relevant basic and comparative information when pondering these new school choices.

He even thinks--and I've written a similar suspicion--that it might violate the state Constitution's requirement for adequate and equitable public education opportunities for the state to take several thousand dollars out of a public school and ship it via a transferred student to a private school that offered no public accountability.

Wooten asserts that the reason for an omnibus education bill is to force someone like him to go along with school choice or get blamed by teachers for opposing their raises. But, as a former state finance director, he agreed with me that it was possible to send schools more money for salaries separately through the appropriation process. Again, the issue will be legislator independence and chutzpah amid the new regime.

Wooten speaks from a lot of experience and with considerable common sense. We await any indication whether there is substantial demand for that at this time.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Print Headline: Republican’s hard row to hoe


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