Seawel Announces Alternative Reform Plan

July 23, 2003 - Posted at: 5:45 p.m. CDT

POCAHONTAS, Ark. -- House Majority Leader Harmon Seawel says that Governor Huckabee's education reform plan will not work, because it doesn't offer reform and doesn't have the votes.

Seawel, D-Pocahontas, announced his alternative education plan at Black River Technical College in Randolph County on Wednesday.

Seawel unveiled his 15-point education plan before rural educators and legislators. He says that any court-mandated education fix is not coming without a significant tax increase. He also blames the state Department of Education for the mess the state is in right now.

"Sixty-two percent of school districts are not being made to comply with the standards we have in place, and that's the problem," Seawell said. "If they were doing so, we wouldn't presently be under the Supreme Court mandate."

Seawell proposes that the education department be reconstituted and placed under control of the legislature.

"If there's been schools that's not been performing, in physical distress, then why have they continued to exist," asked Jimmy Cunningham, president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association.

Seawel also said that academic standards must be raised significantly and teacher's salaries must rise dramatically, or all else is irrelevant.

"I think the big issue here is having salaries competitive with the surrounding states and allowing the smaller schools to compete with the schools from the larger richer districts," said teacher Livina Grandon. "

According to Seawel, residents should not kid themselves. To meet the Supreme Court mandate to fix Arkansas' public schools, Seawell says that significant tax increases are coming.

"The consultants that we employed are saying $700-900 million," Seawel said. "I don't think we necessarily have to raise all that the first year, but we're going to have to put a plan into place that addresses that.

"It's all about money," Cunningham said. "What people don't realize is we have to have a plan in place by January 1st, and we haven't even addressed the need for buildings and facilities."

Grandon said that it is unlikely that citizens would support significant tax increases to pay for reform.

"They're not going to support taxes and lose their school at the same time," Grandon said. "And they're not going to support higher taxes and have no better education system."

Seawel says that's where the governor's plan falls short: It's more about reorganization and not reform.

"The problems with the governor's plan is not so much that it's wrong," Seawel said. "It's that he doesn't have the votes. And if his won't pass and something like this will, do we go with something that might pass or do we go with something that won't?

"That's what I'm arguing."