OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Secret negotiation

If "Project X" between the city of Fort Smith and an unnamed retailer goes through, I expect taxpayers there to file a lawsuit based on violating the state's constitution.

I asked Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, whom I've labeled the FOIA bulldog, for his thoughts about the possible deal being conducted in secret.

"In my opinion, it will be an illegal exaction under Arkansas law. It is clearly an illegal appropriation of tax money to a private corporation."

Article 16 Section 13 of the Arkansas Constitution says a citizen of any county, city or town may institute suit, in behalf of himself and interested others, to protect inhabitants against the enforcement of illegal exactions.

McCutchen said the city of Fort Smith more specifically will be in violation of Article 12 Section 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which says no city shall appropriate money for a corporation, association, institution or individual.

The attorney said that in addition to the constitutional issue, he's also troubled by the secretive nature of Project X. "The secrecy rivals its assault on the Arkansas Constitution. This is all at taxpayer expense, literally and figuratively. Secrecy is the poison of democracy. ... A secret deal like this is reminiscent of the failed deal, approved by a past city board, known as the River Valley Sports complex.

"Everyone wants economic development, but the not at the expense of transparency and our Arkansas Constitution," he added.

Although "Project X" has been handled behind a curtain, word has spread through the city, generating plenty of speculation.

"The Board of Directors voted to appropriate $5 million over 10 years to what appears to be a Bass Pro Shop," said McCutchen, "which means the [city and county] taxpayers could be reimbursed for an illegal appropriation of money to a private corporation."

Reportedly, Fort Smith is one of 12 cities in competition to land Project X for their community.

I can certainly see why a community would be prompted to offer an incentive to a retailer who would hire 93 employees earning an average of $53,000 a year. Yet I wouldn't advise them to violate the law while keeping such a monumental project hidden.

Widespread failure

It's a shocking, ugly picture of failure that likely has negative ramifications for decades to come across our nation.

I'm talking about the national study that determined how terribly eighth-grade students across the U.S. are performing in history and civics courses.

In 2022, about a fifth of eighth-graders tested proficient in civics; nearly 31 percent of eighth-grade civics students performed below standard levels, according to the the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka the Nation's Report Card.

From 2020 to 2022, reading levels in K-12 schools reverted to 1990s scores, the largest drop in reading scores on record, according to the Nation's Report Card.

And it's even worse. News accounts say our nation also saw its first-ever decline in math scores from 2020-2022. No state escaped the decline, with fourth- and eighth-graders recording the most significant drops.

School districts that remained remote during the covid-19 pandemic instead of returning to in-person learning, suffered the largest learning losses. No surprise there. Having a hands-on human teacher in a structured classroom makes a big difference in learning.

From the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, many students failed to receive in-person learning for more than 18 months. The CDC promoted in-person instruction as safe in February 2021, Pew Research reported.

Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the 74 Million, an education-focused outlet, "for U.S. history, I was very, very concerned. It's a decline that started in 2014, long before we even thought about covid. This is a decline that's been [going] down for a while."

Imagine our nation where a generation or more of youth are not effectively educated about what our Constitution is and how its provisions shape and ensure our individual freedoms in society, or the critical nature of separation of powers.

So what's being done to try and rectify this serious matter? What, if anything, can be done once so much damage is done?

And if nothing is undertaken, what will be the impact to our nation of having millions of our youth moving into adulthood with no fundamental education about our history and how government is intended to operate?

How does any young person develop a justifiable sense of pride, patriotism and love for these United States, especially when cultural forces are constantly at work in many minds to attack our country and its history of fighting for liberty and compassion?

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.