Of course you have heard that comment when looking at many of our state’s quality of life ranking. But did you ever ask yourself why we, as a state, are always fighting to not bring up the rear of almost whatever has to do with quality of life issues such as per capital income or vaccinations or college graduates or any one of a dozen other issues. Do we as a state have an extra helping of the stupid gene? Are we just naturally a bunch of yahoos who are dumb as a sack of hammers, and are destined to bring up the bottom in almost every category you can imagine? No, we, as Arkansawyers, aren’t just naturally born stupid! But then, why are we always in the bottom five of nearly every category that measures prosperity or quality of life? This is my take:
I think there are two reasons, and actually this applies to most of the Deep South. These actions are the two biggest mistakes this Nation has made in its 245 years of history, according to my understanding and interpretation of history. The first is allowing slavery, and that resulted in the second biggest mistake, fighting a civil war. Just think of the loss of life, the destruction of property, and the segregation of the Black Americans in the South. The horrible result of those two mistakes overshadow all the other blunders in our nation’s history.
I know we shouldn’t dwell on past mistakes as we look at the present, but we must because the root cause of Arkansas’ miserable ranking is buried in the past. Just consider the results of the Civil War on Arkansas and the rest of the South. The unbelievable loss of life, which resulted hundreds of thousands of white southern men being killed, and then the economic destruction of the southern way of life, which left the south destitute and facing a horrible future without the men who would contribute to prosperity. On top of that Reconstruction steepened the loss. The War and resulting poverty created resentment of the newly freed Black southerners and Jim Crow was instigated by the angry whites as the only way these white southerns could resist. Those are just facts, and we’re living with the results of those actions and mistakes of our forefathers. Those are the core reasons why Arkansas and most of the southern states are racing for the bottom in quality of life categories.
If we closely examine the result of those actions since the end of the Civil War, we can easily conclude that the education of the average southerner suffered, especially the Black Southerners. The economy of the South was shattered by the War, and education easily became a victim because if you’re having trouble putting food on the table, sending your kids off the college becomes almost impossible. Combine that with the Separate but Equal treatment the Black population of the South, and the segregation of southern colleges, and it’s easy to see why the south, since the Civil War, has generally produced an under-educated people. Of course, Separate but Equal was a joke. Before the mid-1950s there never was equal opportunity for Black Southerners. But the lack of education in the South is still with us, and it’s no surprise that the more educated states have a higher standard of living than most southern states. The lack of education effects every part of life in our state. We have made some progress, but as a state we still have an under-educated population compared to the rest of the nation. Let look at one example: Vermont vs Arkansas, and we’ll look at a modern day situation, COVID-19 vaccinations vs education, and other markers. The following figures are from U. S. News & World Reports
Vermont is similar to Arkansas in many ways, but the major difference is in its education level, which is ranked 18 nationwide compared to Arkansas’s ranking which is 41. Vermont’s health care is ranked 18 compared to Arkansas’s 49. COVID-19 vaccinations—at least one shot—-Vermont 80% and Arkansas is 40.8%. Yes, it does seem, the better educated you are the more likely you are to get vaccinated, and the less likely you will be to die from COVID-19. I know you may try to come up with excuses, which is what we do when we’re ranked near the bottom, but those excuses don’t hold water. We are the bottom or very near it in almost any quality of life measurement, and I believe it is directly tied to our overall low education level of our population. As example the state legislature has no educational requirement.
If we are ever going to be in the top tier of states, the first thing we need to do acknowledge the problem. An alcoholic can’t break the habit unless he or she admits they are an alcoholic. Therefore, from the top of our elected officials to every member of the legislature, we must rank improving the educational opportunities for every high school graduate as our first priority. If we are to improve our education level in this state, we must make it override every other item on the legislative calendar. That mean we need to get off abortion and guns. My God, surely we already have enough anti-abortion and pro-gun legislation. Our recent legislative session really didn’t even have improving the education of Arkansas people on its agenda. We must insist that education be made a priority if we are ever going to pull ourselves up from the bottom tier of life measures. The items below are several obvious ways to attack the problem:
(1) Give our teachers a huge raise! At least 30% to 40% and give our school districts the money to substantially increase their staff.
(2) Create a facilities fund of at least a half billion dollars to bring the brick and mortar part of education up to national levels.
(3) Increase the mandated age of school education which is currently 5 to 17 years of age to 4 to 18, and create pre-kindergarten and post graduate high school studies.
(4) Make full two year scholarships available for all Junior colleges and trade schools students in the state.
(5) Create and fund a degree enhancement program for all public and private school teachers and administrators, with salary increases contingent receiving advanced degrees.
Of course, our elected officials will moan and say we can’t afford the cost of bringing our citizens’ level of education up to National Standards. Well, I think we can’t afford not to. If we can spend mega-millions on sports programs, cut state income taxes, and run a one billion surplus of tax receipts, we can find the funds to implement these programs. It seems we have our heads stuck in the sand when it comes to admitting our entire educational system is far below national standards. Until we admit the lack of education is the root cause of our national standing in numerous quality of life standards, we will always be saying “Thank God for Mississippi.” And guess what? Arkansas is 49th of fully vaccinated citizens, and Mississippi is 51st.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected].