Should secret political donors be disclosed?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

About 70 people turned out for a political demonstration on the State Capitol steps Tuesday – a fraction of the number that would have appeared if the subject were a controversial social issue, but I’ve seen plenty of smaller crowds there.

The issue was campaign finance reform. A coalition of groups were calling attention to their coming effort to gather signatures for a ballot initiative serving two purposes. First, it would make Arkansas the 17th state to call on Congress to advance a constitutional amendment allowing it and the states to regulate campaign funding. That’s just a request. Second, it would require independent political groups in Arkansas to disclose their donors. That would be the law.

Among the speakers was Rhana Bazzini, an 81-year-old Floridian who previously had marched from Sarasota to Tallahassee to protest current campaign finance laws. Bazzini pointed out, correctly, that every issue – education, health care, the national debt – is connected to how we elect our public officials.

And how we elect our public officials is through legalized bribery. I mean, let’s call it what it is. Serious candidates ask donors for money; unless they are super-wealthy, they have no choice. Groups who want something from the government give candidates money, which buys access, sympathy and loyalty. The more they give, the more access, sympathy and loyalty they receive. You know that version of the Golden Rule that says, “He who has the gold makes the rules”? That’s a fundamental part of American democracy.

This has always been the case, of course, but the dots between money and politics are becoming ever more connected. In America, money is speech and corporations are people, and under the 2010 Citizens United ruling, corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on campaigns.

The result of that ruling has been the creation of independent groups spending enormous amounts to spread half-truths and slander political candidates while hiding under the cloak of anonymity. A single donor, or a small group of them, essentially can buy their own candidates in legally approved secrecy. Because more money is going into judicial races, justice increasingly is for sale.

I am not sure if there are easy answers for this. Money tends to find its way to power like water finds its way to the bottom of a hill, no matter what laws are passed. Also, I can see the argument that spending money to advance a political idea is a form of political speech, as well as a property right.

The obvious problem with that last argument is that more money equals more speech, which, after all, is supposed to be “free.” We know this current system is having a corrosive, corrupting influence on our politics. It’s creating a class of ultra-wealthy political sugar daddies. It’s accelerating the transfer of wealth from middle class taxpayers to the one percent. (Remember the bank bailout?)

It’s also affecting our daily lives. According to the Declaration of Independence, one of the reasons the colonists broke away from Great Britain was to better enable the pursuit of happiness. The constant barrage of negative political ads isn’t making anyone happy except those who get paid to produce them.

What do you think? Should there be limits to the amounts that donors can give to candidates and/or independent political groups? Should campaigns be publicly financed, so that more candidates could run for office without having to rely on these legalized bribes? Or would that just open up new cans of worms?

At the very least, disclosure of donors to independent political groups ought to be required. If people are able to spend millions of dollars to elect a candidate, at least the rest of should know about it. That’s the law these groups want in Arkansas, and they probably are going to have to pass it through a ballot initiative. This past session, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, tried unsuccessfully to pass a disclosure law through the Legislature, and it didn’t even advance past a House committee.

“Speaking” is by definition a public activity, so there should be no expectation of anonymity when doing so. If people want to spend their millions to shout from the hilltop, they can’t expect to do so from inside a cave. So when the canvassers ask for my signature to place this measure on next year’s ballot, I’ll enthusiastically write my name – in person and in public.

Leadership needed to keep the republic

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

As Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him if the delegates had created a republic or a monarchy. According to notes written by Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

He did not say “democracy,” which the Founding Fathers saw as “mob rule.” Instead, they created a republic, where the people have ultimate authority by electing their officials but don’t stand in town squares and raise their hands to decide national issues.

Given that history, should elected officials vote their consciences, or should they follow popular opinion? Both, if they are doing their jobs. They should listen to their constituents and give great weight to their wishes, but if all they do is stick their fingers in the air and then follow the political winds, why should they exist? Why not just post every question currently facing Congress on the internet and let us all vote by clicking? How much funding should the Central Intelligence Agency receive this year? Click.

The character quality that’s needed, and the one that’s been missing far too long, is leadership. Elected officials must be willing to make tough calls, explain their decisions, and then accept the consequences. In some countries, if you lose power, you die. Egypt, for example, recently sentenced its previous president, Mohammed Morsi, to execution. In the United States, former Sen. Mark Pryor became a well-paid lobbyist after being “deposed,” as did Blanche Lincoln, Tim Hutchinson and many others.

And that brings us to the national debt. I think I first wrote about the subject in 1992, and frankly, I’m getting tired of trying to convince you people to be concerned about it. But I’ll try again. The debt has reached $18.2 trillion – roughly $57,000 for every American man, woman and child. It’s partly financed by foreign creditors, which is a really stupid idea. The government has many trillions of dollars in assets and is not bankrupt. But this is a growing problem because the government has made many trillions of dollars’ worth of promises that it cannot keep.

A number of groups – the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Concord Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Budget – are trying to educate the American people about the debt, and, just as with my columns, it’s not getting through. Americans know no entity can indefinitely spend more than it collects and are concerned about the debt in the abstract, but they oppose specific cuts and don’t want to raise (their own) taxes. It’s hard to balance a budget if you don’t decrease outgo and/or raise income.

Anyway, democracy often doesn’t reflect the will of the majority on a particular issue, but the will of the loudest and most committed less-than-majorities. Any spending cut or tax increase will attract fierce opposition by the groups most affected. What matters is not what 51 percent want. What matters is what 15 percent want that the other 85 percent won’t fight for.

The debt is not the kind of issue that leads Americans to march on the Capitol. It’s a terrible injustice that affects mostly people who are too young to do anything about it. There will never be a groundswell of support for paying it down, even though the alternative is leaving it to our kids and grandkids, which surely few of us want to do.

Because there’s never going to be a groundswell, elected officials must lead. They must make tough decisions that they explain to the public, and then they either will be re-elected, or they will lose and become lobbyists. No one will lop off their head if they raise the gas tax or cut a program somewhere.

It takes a special person to do this, because apparently it’s very tempting in Washington to do whatever it takes to be re-elected. These types of republic-leaders can’t get elected without support. They need campaign donations – in larger increments from those who can, and in smaller increments from the concerned common man. I really wish those groups I mentioned, or at least their allies, would start playing a little more hardball.

There’s been enough talk about this subject. A few of us must lead, and a few more of us must have their backs. And if the American people won’t accept that this republic can’t keep going into debt, then I guess we won’t be able to keep it.

The keys for Johnny Key: leading, mending

Johnny Key speaks after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announces him as his choice as education commissioner.
Johnny Key speaks after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announces him as his choice as education commissioner.
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’m not the first person to point out that two of the most important people in Arkansas education these days are not educators. Not surprisingly, some educators are not happy about this.

Those two would be former Sen. Johnny Key, the state’s new education commissioner, and Baker Kurrus, the new Little Rock School District superintendent, who was appointed by Key.

Until this past legislative session, Key legally could not have served in his current post. Under previous state law, the state’s education commissioner was required to have been an educator for 10 years with five years’ experience as an administrator. Key has owned a day care but has not worked in education.

Previously, he was chairman of the Senate Education Committee and was the leading legislator regarding education policy. In that role, the Republican won friends and respect because of his cooperative, conciliatory, consensus-building style. You might not agree with him, but he’s fair.

He’s also perhaps the best person to be education commissioner, despite his lack of qualifications.

For the past decade, Arkansas education has been marked by consensus thanks to a common enemy – the fear of returning to court. The state spent many years under the thumb of the Lake View case because the Arkansas Constitution requires a “general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools,” which the courts redefined as “adequate” and “equitable.” To get the state out of court, and keep it out, legislators poured money into schools and then regularly gave them a cost of living raise, at the expense of all other state priorities. When other states were cutting school funding, Arkansas was increasing it.

But thanks to time and term limits, Lake View is a fading memory, and the ties that bound everyone together are fraying. A real divide exists now at the Capitol among education reformers, including some Republican legislators, and the education establishment. If anybody can bring those two sides together, it’s Key, the former Republican legislator known for fairness.

Still, the idea that a non-educator would be in charge of education policy is understandably hard for some educators to accept. He’s never been in the trenches with them. He’s never tried to teach geometry to a struggling student, or administer a standardized test, or deal firsthand with the laws he helped pass. My wife the other day said the president of the United States ought to have served in the military, of which he or she serves as commander-in-chief. It’s the same principle.

Key has some fences to mend across the state, especially after one of his first major acts was to appoint Kurrus as superintendent of the Little Rock School District. As education commissioner, Key effectively is a one-man school board for every district under state control, and that includes the state’s largest.

Like Key, Kurrus has crafted education policy but isn’t an educator. A well-respected attorney and businessman, he served 12 years on the Little Rock School Board and has been heading a committee studying the district’s finances. If Key is best described as “conciliatory and cooperative,” Kurrus could be described as “thoroughly competent,” and the district could use a lot of that right now.

But he’s not a competent educator, or at least, not an experienced one. The appointment of a legislator to lead education – that was tough for some to swallow. When that legislator named an attorney and businessman to lead Little Rock’s schools – well, then it became kind of a one-two punch.

Outsiders can bring a needed fresh perspective, and there are many walks of life where an organization’s leader is not necessarily an expert in that organization’s primary mission. It works well when those leaders understand their role and limitations and let the experts do their jobs. When I asked Key about his lack of experience, he cited the example of the hospital CEO who is not a doctor. Would any patient care? Of course not.

Is that a good analogy? Mostly, although in many hospitals, the doctors are the stars with the ultimate power, and the CEO, no matter how well paid, plays a support role. Teachers don’t quite have that kind of sway. The most important single person in Arkansas public education is now Johnny Key. The most important single person in Little Rock public education is now Baker Kurrus, and the person to whom he answers is Key.

This can work as long as they know their roles, let the experts do their jobs, and mend some fences.

Arkansas seeks to find its place in the nonstop campaign

CapitolBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that legislators will be returning to Little Rock for a special session May 26. The main reason will be to pass a bond issue to help Lockheed Martin compete for a contract to produce the military’s new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the replacement for the Humvee, in Camden.

Lockheed Martin is a global megacorporation with $45.6 billion in sales in 2014, so it will be interesting to see what Arkansas taxpayers will be asked to fund. But this is the way the game is played these days, so Arkansas must play it. At stake is the production of 55,000 vehicles – basically, the auto plant the state long has coveted – and that’s not counting what foreign militaries might order. About 600 jobs would be created in south Arkansas, which needs them.

Legislators also will consider ways of streamlining state government – Hutchinson hasn’t offered concrete proposals regarding how – and might consider moving Arkansas’ political primaries, or maybe just the presidential ones, to March 1. That’s the subject of the rest of this column.

Tired of ceding the early presidential nominating process to Iowa and New Hampshire and then being forgotten later, a group of Southern states are considering holding their primaries March 1 in what many are calling the “SEC primary.”

Arkansas voters don’t usually play much of a role in presidential politics. The state’s primary election occurs so late in the process that many candidates have dropped out by the time Arkansans vote, and the state is so small that the remaining candidates don’t make it a priority. Legislators considered the SEC primary in the recently completed regular session. The bill didn’t pass, but support didn’t die. Maybe it would make Arkansas more relevant. It might give Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign a boost, which his supporters would see as a plus.

These campaigns start early – Jan. 3 in Iowa in 2012, in fact. This year, the Iowa caucus will be Feb. 1, nine months before the general election, and the New Hampshire primary will be Feb. 9. And of course, candidates already have been campaigning for months.

Didn’t we just have an election? These days, elected officials are so focused on the next campaign that they can’t do the jobs voters chose them to do in the previous one. And that’s a problem with real-life consequences.

Case in point: The federal Highway Trust Fund is nearly empty, and the bill that funds it expires at the end of this month. A real, multi-year replacement is badly needed, but time is running out. We were in this same situation last year, but of course an election was coming up, so Congress passed a gimmicky, short-term fix that funded 10 months of construction with revenues borrowed from the next decade. Now those 10 months are over, and we’re right back where we were. Uncertain about what Congress is going to do this time, the state Highway Department has cancelled $282 million in construction projects this year. Last month, the American Trucking Associations’ chief lobbyist told Arkansas trucking executives that a bill must be written this year or else we’ll have to wait until the end of 2017 because presidential politics will get in the way.
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Contrast American democracy with Great Britain’s recently completed parliamentary election. Queen Elizabeth formally dissolved Parliament in late March at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron, the election was scheduled for May 7, the parties campaigned, and 66.1 percent of the electorate voted. The Conservatives won, and Cameron retained his post. It was over in six weeks.

Great Britain has its own problems, of course, and nobody here wants a monarch, but the United States clearly is not well served by a democratic government where few have time to govern anymore. According to the Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness” is one of the three inalienable rights that led to America’s founding. Are the nonstop campaigning and barrage of toxic negative advertising helping you pursue happiness?

We’ll know whether the primary election will be moved before the session begins because only issues where the outcome is reasonably certain will be included in the call. It will be predetermined behind closed doors, which is not very transparent but is efficient.

At least they’ll govern, and then voters can decide if they did the right thing. I hear there’s an election coming up.

Huckabee the anti-Romney

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I didn’t think that former Gov. Mike Huckabee was in the first tier of presidential hopefuls when he started talking about running. I probably had him at the bottom of the middle tier – somewhere around former Sen. Rick Santorum.

After covering Tuesday’s announcement, I’d move him into the first tier.

Huckabee’s appearance in his hometown of Hope drew a large crowd and lots of media. It was professional, with staff members and volunteers. He and wife Janet seemed confident and resolved. His campaign later announced his schedule for fundraising – always a weak spot of his.

Some people are saying he’s just looking for publicity. It didn’t look that way Tuesday. He already had a TV show, which he gave up in order to run.

No, this is a presidential campaign. The question is, can it be a winning one? His campaign points to poll numbers showing he has high favorability ratings among Republican voters compared to some of his potential opponents. Certainly, he knows how to speak to the party faithful.

His speech, which lasted half an hour, laid out a campaign theme of “From Hope to Higher Ground.” He mentioned gay marriage and abortion, of course, but he spent more time talking about economic policies, and that’s where he differentiates himself from many Republican candidates.

Average Americans’ wealth has stagnated at the same time that the gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us is becoming kind of scary. This is one of the defining issues of our time, but Republicans are terrible at talking about it, in part because too many of them, like Mitt Romney, identify with the 1 percent.

Republicans say they’re the party of smaller government, and they should continue to be that, but they must do a better job of explaining why. They must blame policies, not people, but they really must blame less, period, and offer a positive vision for the country. If they spend the next year-and-a-half being simply the anti-Obama, anti-Hillary party, they’ll win Arkansas but won’t win the presidency. It sounds touchy-feely, but they must show they care about the problems, hopes and dreams of average Americans.

You can’t fake that, and that’s why Huckabee’s candidacy can’t be dismissed. In some ways, he’s the anti-Romney. He’s making a lot of money now, but he spent most of his life in the middle class, and that’s where his sensibilities remain. Tuesday, the former Pine Bluff and Texarkana pastor painted himself as the candidate of the common man in a way that Romney, the venture capitalist, could not pretend to do.

The term for his brand of blue collar, anti-elite politics is “economic populism,” and it speaks to a segment of the population that votes in Republican Party primaries but doesn’t necessarily donate much money to campaigns. It’s a bit out of step with the direction the party’s been going, and a lot of big donors don’t like it. Huckabee criticizes government in general, but some conservatives don’t trust how he would govern specifically, given that as governor he helped create a statewide government health program, ARKids First, and raised some taxes (while cutting others). The powerful Club for Growth thinks he’s too liberal and has already bought $100,000 in anti-Huckabee ads running in Iowa and South Carolina. He’s called it the “club for greed.”

But all the candidates face headwinds. The party tends to select the safest, best-funded choice. That’s Jeb Bush this year, but even his own mother has questioned if Americans should elect a third member of the same family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s candidacy has lost its shine. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul probably bucks Republican Party orthodoxy too often to be nominated.

Unlike the Democrats, Republicans don’t have a favorite at this point. So if Huckabee wins Iowa, he can start doing some damage.

This is not an endorsement of Huckabee’s candidacy or a prediction he’ll win. I still believe he’ll run out of gas at some point. The Republican establishment will want to coalesce behind someone early so it can target Hillary Clinton. In the end, the winner will be the candidate favored by the big money donors. It usually is.

Whoever that is, it has to be someone who can speak about the middle class and to the middle class. He or she must connect, not just campaign. Huckabee can do that, and that’s why he’s in the first tier.

Ex-con points way to closing prison’s revolving door

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Before this past legislative session, legislators were asked to consider building a $100 million prison, but nobody really wanted to do that. The state already housed more than 18,000 inmates, including a backlog of 2,500 in county jails, and a new prison would add only 1,000 beds. Forty-three percent of inmates released from prison return within three years, anyway. As soon as the new prison was finished, another would have to be built.

Other solutions are needed that change behavior, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, so that prison becomes less of a revolving door. So he proposed, and legislators passed, a legislative package meant to provide a short-term fix, including renting space in Texas, and a more long-term effort that includes creating transitional re-entry centers where prisoners reintegrate into society – rather than just receiving the traditional $100 and a bus ticket back to the life that sent them to prison in the first place.

Hutchinson and legislators also created a criminal justice reform task force that is studying other options. Let’s hope its members talk to Jason Duncan.

Duncan, 33, does not look like an ex-con. He’s 6-5, handsome, and stands with a leader’s confident posture.

At age 18, he was a different person. At that point, he told me he decided “to seek whatever was pleasurable in the moment” and began a life that, a decade later, “found me completely addicted to drugs, a raging alcoholic and starting to develop quite a spectacular rap sheet.”

He was sitting in a concrete jail cell in North Carolina, a fugitive from Arkansas justice, when he opened a Bible out of boredom to Deuteronomy 28, read about curses resulting from disobedience, and saw himself. He decided to become a Christian, got out of jail, and immediately returned to his old life, which led him, finally, to an Arkansas correctional facility.

Duncan’s life began to change when he enrolled in a program offered through Arkansas Community Corrections where inmates are transported to Little Rock’s Arkansas Baptist College to participate in a program managed by Under Grace Ministries. The inmates attend classes in recovery, spiritual discipleship, entrepreneurial thinking and resource management.

The inmates stood out a little. They wore brown uniforms, which was OK because, Duncan said, “most of the students thought we worked for UPS.” Many were white, including Duncan, and they were attending class on a campus serving mostly African-American students that originally was built to educate former slaves.

The program gave Duncan the direction he needed. After leaving state custody, he remained at ABC for two semesters and then transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he’s studying international business and marketing. He’s now the director of international student ministry at Fellowship Bible Church. He’s married and has a son from his previous life.

Last week, he spoke at a ceremony dedicating ABC’s Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship & Community Development, which will house an expanded version of the program that changed his life. So far, about 30 inmates have started the program. Next year, 100-120 will be involved.

I asked Duncan what services inmates need to return to society and stay out of prison. He said they need a spiritual foundation along with education and work training because many have never had a job and don’t really know what one is. They need help overcoming their addictions. Also, each one of them should transition to society in a halfway house, a “safe environment with accountability but also a mix of freedom.”

The recently passed legislative package will pay for 500 parolees to be involved in such transitional re-entry centers. The state each year releases 10,000 inmates back into society.

Duncan didn’t say it, but fewer people need to go to prison in the first place. There are two reasons 43 percent of inmates return to prison within three years. One is that they were messed up to begin with, and prison didn’t fix them. The other is that they had merely made mistakes to begin with, and then prison really messed them up.

Let’s hope policymakers wisely consider solutions from every angle – keeping people out of prison who shouldn’t be there, helping parolees avoid returning, and keeping those who should be in prison locked up. Let’s hope the state finds more partners like Under Grace Ministries and ABC. Halfway houses are a good start, but let’s not settle for halfway solutions.

What do teachers think of Common Core?

Common Core cover cutoutBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

What do Arkansas teachers think about the Common Core? According to a recent survey, 61 percent would keep it rather than eliminate it, but 87 percent don’t like the testing.

Those were some of the findings of the University of Arkansas’ Office for Education Policy, which asked 2,795 teachers to participate in an online survey and received responses from 975 of them.

Many Arkansas teachers seem to find a lot of positives in the Common Core, which is a set of common standards in math and English language arts currently used by 43 states. Sixty-six percent said they were satisfied with the standards, and 92 percent said they were more rigorous than the previous ones. Large majorities agreed or strongly agreed that the Common Core will lead to improved student learning, help students think critically, and better prepare them for college and the workforce.

Lt. Governor Tim Griffin, who is leading a panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to review the standards, found the results somewhat contradictory. Despite the above results, when asked to complete the sentence, “Overall, my students will be ___ after the introduction of the Common Core Standards,” only 46 percent said “better off,” while 28 percent said “the same” and 26 percent said “worse off.”

In other words, less than half of the teachers said the Common Core will make a positive difference overall in the same survey where large majorities were saying it makes a positive difference in the areas that matter – learning, critical thinking, and college and career preparation.

Griffin, a public school father who seems willing to listen to both sides of the Common Core debate, said the survey is “interesting” and “helpful” but “not dispositive” – which, he had to explain to me, is a legal term meaning it doesn’t settle anything.

Polls rarely do, which is why a democracy shouldn’t be based on them. This is not a criticism of the Office for Education Policy, which seems to have conducted a thorough survey. But, as is often the case, of course you get contradictory results when you ask complicated people about complicated issues with only a few simple answers from which to choose. Also, survey respondents often answer the questions they want to answer, not the ones that are asked. (Happens in real-life conversations, too.)

Which brings us to the 87 percent who said they didn’t like the testing associated with Common Core. Of all the elements of the Common Core, the testing is the most controversial. Arkansas is part of a consortium of nine states plus the District of Columbia involved in the PARCC assessment, which compares students across state lines. At one time, there were 24 states, but a majority have left. Legislators considered doing the same here but ultimately decided to renew Arkansas’ participation no more than one year at a time.

There are many questions about the test, including how the data will be used and whether the results will be known in time to do any good. With an 87 percent majority, it’s clear that teachers don’t like PARCC, but many probably also were expressing years of frustration with testing in general. It takes too much time, and they don’t like being judged for how another human performs on a test.

Teaching has undergone many changes in recent years. No Child Left Behind put the federal government in charge of holding schools accountable. The state has instituted a Teacher Excellence and Support System to evaluate teachers and help them improve. New instructional methods are de-emphasizing lecturing. More and more, teachers instead are expected to guide students through technology-driven, project-based learning.

Change is hard. Sixty-four percent of the survey’s respondents disagreed with the statement, “I like teaching more now than before the Common Core Standards were introduced.” Seventy-four percent said that teaching has become more stressful. But 63 percent agreed that the Common Core has made them better at their job.

So maybe many in that 61 percent who said the Common Core should be retained really think it’s better. And maybe some were really just saying they didn’t want to change to something else yet again. Maybe some were just saying, “Let us catch our breath!”

At the very least, this much is clear: A majority of teachers who answered this survey want to keep the Common Core, and a large majority don’t like the testing.

What should Arkansas do with this information? It’s not dispositive.

Seek first to understand, even in politics

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The fifth of Dr. Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Could that apply to politics, even today?

Covey taught that being understood is such a fundamental need that it is impossible to influence another person until that need has been met. He compared it to air: Remove it from a room, and nothing else would matter to the occupants.

Unfortunately, understanding is in short supply – in Washington, D.C., of course, but also outside the Beltway. Americans are divided ideologically, culturally and even geographically. We live in red and blue states and in safe Republican and Democratic congressional districts. Even our neighborhoods and churches are largely politically segregated. As a result, we’re far more likely to talk about people on the other side than with them. Now we’re entering another campaign season where billions of dollars will be spent to disunite us. Didn’t we just have an election?

Seeking first to understand, then to be understood is important politically for three reasons: because none of us knows everything (except radio talk show hosts and TV pundits, of course); because most of us have something to offer; and because the stakes are too high not to try.

The issues that we argue about usually involve competing worthwhile values that are difficult to balance – what government should do to help the needy, for example. Few Americans, including conservatives, want the government to do absolutely nothing to help those who truly need it, and most of us, including liberals, agree that too much government dependence is bad both for society and for dependent individuals.

What’s the exact dollar figure that perfectly balances those two competing values? No one can know. Thank goodness we don’t have to hit that sweet spot perfectly. Just getting reasonably close and governing responsibly is good enough.

In a country with 300 million people, you don’t reach that point by digging ideological trenches and shooting at each other across no man’s land. That kind of thinking just perpetuates an unsustainable status quo.

So how about seeking first to understand? What if we humbly acknowledged that, because we don’t know everything, the greater good is accomplished by combining our ideas with others’? It’s good that liberals warn of the dangers of capitalism degenerating into a survival of the fittest mentality, and it’s good that conservatives voice their concerns about government’s inefficiencies and its capacity to restrict freedom.

By valuing both points of views, and others across the political spectrum, we can get to Covey’s sixth habit: Synergize. That’s the idea that individuals can come together from different places and create something better than what either would have created on their own. It’s much better than compromise, where no one walks away particularly happy. Compromise is better than continued fighting, and in politics, it’s often the best possible result. But synergy happens, too. It’s how we got the Constitution. These days, a framework might be created that better addresses human needs without increasing dependency and adding to the $18 trillion national debt.

Covey also taught that each of us inhabits two circles: a circle of concern where we have no control, and a circle of influence where we do. Focus on your circle of influence, he said.

I can’t create synergy in Washington, but I can seek first to understand, then to be understood in my own life. I’ve decided to learn to avoid fruitless political debates, online or in person – the kind where two people are concerned only with scoring points and not considering the other’s ideas. Nothing productive happens when two people are emotionally invested in a political argument and motivated by pride and fear of losing face. I’ve wasted my time on several of these lately. In the end, all I accomplished was become frustrated and lose 45 minutes that could have been spent more productively.

Instead, I’ve determined to treat these discussions as opportunities for partnership rather than competition – to seek first to understand. I expect I’ll learn something actually listening to others. Maybe we’ll create a dialogue that enriches us both. Maybe I’ll influence the other person, and if I don’t, I certainly wouldn’t have done so by trying to debate them into submission.

And if I’m caught in a conversation with someone who’s not seeking to understand? Hopefully, I’ll be wise enough to get out of it, go somewhere else, and get some air.

No child in Flippin left behind

Interventionist Juanell Potter works with student Thomas Gravely.
Interventionist Juanell Potter works with student Thomas Gravely.
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

FLIPPIN – Superintendent Dale Query has spent more than four decades in education, and one thing that has remained constant is smart kids struggling in school and often becoming discipline problems.

He and his fellow educators in Flippin long have struggled to find the key to helping those students reach their potential. Now they think they’ve found it. Many of them have dyslexia.

The condition, which is surprisingly common at varying degrees, is a language-based learning challenge based on brain structure. The students often are smart – sometimes very smart – but they just can’t read well or put things on paper, so from their earliest days in school, they begin falling behind their peers. Teachers tell their parents they don’t apply themselves. Some students make frequent trips to the principal’s office.

A couple of years ago, a school employee brought her grandchild to the elementary office and said the child was dyslexic. Principal Tracie Luttrell, who in the past had dismissed the condition per her training, decided to attend a seminar, and something clicked. Inspired, she and others began researching the condition.

The north-central Arkansas district has made dyslexia a top priority. Many staff members attended a Saturday training on their own time as the program was starting. Six full-time interventionists work one-on-one with students. The district has 800 students, and 107 of them last year attended hourly summer school sessions twice a week. Many saw significant improvements.

The district relies on the Susan Barton method, which uses multiple senses – sight, sound, touch – to help students’ left and right brains make the proper connections to make reading easier. In a room dedicated to dyslexia, students drag tiles with letters down a magnetic board as they learn the sounds those letters make. Tiles for more advanced students have groups of letters so that those developing brains can make the connection that “o-l-d” always says “old” when it’s part of a longer word. Students also are drilled in English grammar rules until they know enough to put a newspaper editor to shame. Did you know there’s a reason why “truck” ends in “ck” but “milk” needs only a “k”? These students do.

Juanelle Potter, one of the interventionists working with students, has a special reason for working what she calls “by far the greatest job I’ve ever had.” Her husband, a math whiz, and two of her children have dyslexia. Homework was a nightly battle. Now, the daughter who would tell her, “I’m stupid” has been invited to the freshman honors banquet. Her fifth-grade son, Raymond, is no longer falling behind his peers. “I thought I wasn’t that smart,” he told me. He wants to be a mechanical engineer someday.

For some students, the program will be the difference between reading well and a lifetime of near illiteracy. But Luttrell said the benefits have gone far beyond that small population. For the first time in her educational career, she’s ready to move students out of special education, which will allow those teachers to focus on those remaining. Students are graduating out of speech therapy more quickly. Meanwhile, students with mild dyslexic characteristics who were making “C’s” – and therefore not drawing much attention – are doing better in school. Counselor Sherry Rainbolt says students she was counseling with dyslexia no longer struggle with anger or motivation issues.

“Once they’re told that there’s a reason, it’s instantaneous that they know, ‘Well, I’m not dumb. Nothing’s wrong with me, really.’ I mean, this is something that we can help them with, and they see hope,” she said.

Query uses a pretty strong descriptor: “cured for life.” Students who were being left behind in school are catching up to their peers and will never fall behind again. He sees it as the answer to a lot of problems. He says certain students no longer will need therapy, or medication, or, eventually, wind up in jail.

“When we spread those numbers out from Flippin, Arkansas, to the state of Arkansas to our nation, dyslexia intervention has the potential of reshaping our whole society,” he said.

Thanks to laws sponsored during the past two legislative sessions by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, school districts across the state will screen students for dyslexia in grades K-2, and in other grades where appropriate. Then they’ll be required to intervene.

Will they look to Flippin’s example? They will if they’re smart.

Limit state lawmakers to 10 bills

CapitolBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

During an 81-day session, Arkansas state legislators considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 of them into law. That’s a lot in a short amount of time.

The session was relatively brief. The legislative volume was not out of the ordinary, but were there really 1,288 ways Arkansas needed to be fixed – especially this way, this fast?

This is not a column bashing legislators, whom I find to be generally honorable and likable, with flaws like the rest of us. Many are idealists who spent months walking the streets of their hometowns campaigning for office with no guarantee they would win.

They want all that work to mean something, which is why they filed an average of 16.4 bills per legislator. (There are 135 legislative seats, but one was vacant this session.) Many lawmakers are reluctant to vote against each other’s bills for fear of offending someone they may need later for their own legislation – plus, it just feels kind of rude. As a result, many bills are passed with overwhelming majorities, at least in one chamber. Because there are so many bills – and because legislators don’t have staff members to read them – most of the important work happens in committee. There’s just too much to do in too little time.

The Legislature’s cooperative spirit enables it generally to get its work done – unlike Congress. Under the Revenue Stabilization Act, Arkansas state government will not run a deficit this upcoming fiscal year. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office projects Uncle Sam will add $468 billion to the national debt in 2015 – the equivalent of about $1,459 per American, and this was a good year. In contrast to the Legislature’s 1,288 acts, Congress passed 296 laws over a two-year period in 2013-14 and 283 in 2011-12, according to the Pew Research Center. In other words, the Legislature passed more than twice as many laws in 81 days as Congress passed in four years.

Congress and the Legislature exist in very different universes. Congress deals in trillions while the Legislature deals in billions. Congress governs a vast, diverse country with significant regional and partisan differences. In the Arkansas Legislature, most Democrats and Republicans have similar viewpoints. The politics is less professional in Arkansas – though it’s moving in that direction.

Still, it probably would be best if Congress were more like the Legislature and if the Legislature were a little more like Congress. Passing 1,288 laws in 81 days – that’s just too many.

So here’s a modest proposal: Each legislator should be limited to filing about 10 bills per session. That would have cut the number to 1,340 this year, creating a more deliberate process and giving legislators a chance to focus on their priorities. If a bill is only 11th on their list, it can’t be that important to them.

This should start as a flexible rule of thumb enforced by the Legislature’s culture rather than a formal, legal limit enforced by law. Issues arise late in a session – for example, banning adoption “rehoming” – and legislators need to be able to file another bill if they are the best positioned to do so.

The downside would be that legislators would write longer, broader bills – try to get two for the price of one, in other words. Yes, that’s a danger, but the more a bill tries to do, the more likely it will contain provisions that draw opposition.

In 1,288 ways, legislators over the past three months have changed Arkansas through the force of government. Some of those laws were good and some weren’t, but all of them were passed in a hurried environment that places too much emphasis on passing bills for passing bills’ sake. Lawmakers should slow down and do less, but do it more deliberately.

•••

I need to make a correction. In a column about the Legislature’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act published around April 1, I wrote that I voted against the state’s 2004 amendment banning gay marriage. I had my elections confused. I voted in 2008 against a ban on unmarried couples adopting or fostering children, which also passed. It was aimed at gays and lesbians and also affected heterosexual unmarried couples.

I’m pretty sure I voted for the gay marriage ban in 2004. I would not vote that way today. Americans should not look to the government to define marriage. Let the government focus its attention elsewhere – and pass fewer laws at the state level thanks to a 10-bill limit. See above.