Rep. Jim Wooten of Beebe has a long track record of championing AR public schools. He graciously took time to chat with us this week about two of his education bills, what he hopes to see for teachers, and more. Watch a clip of our interview or read an edited excerpt of our conversation below.

For AR People: Tell us about what you’re hearing from educators in your district, specifically Beebe schools.

Rep. Wooten: The primary communication with me has been about the salary structure. We are having some of the same conversations we did 40 years ago when I started the first school finance commission for the state after the Lakeview case. We’re still having the same conversations, and it deals with teacher pay and compensation. If you’re gonna teach today, you have to have a desire to teach, because you’re sure not doing it for the money. Here’s how I think about it: if we can pay a football coach $6 million, it’s ridiculous that we pay a teacher $36,000-$41,000 a year. If a society can do that, it’s got things upside down. I don’t begrudge anyone for making that, and I’ve never begrudged anybody getting pay raises. But, it shows us where our priorities are. Something is wrong with our system when we have to have this debate about teacher salaries.

Here’s the other side of the coin: we cannot demand more of our teachers. We cannot demand more for measurement and higher scores. We cannot demand they make a better effort as long as we’re not paying them a decent wage. [The state] pays me $42,000 a year to be a state representative. That’s more than a starting teacher makes.

Via Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal

For AR People: Tell us about public education legislation you are working on.

Rep Wooten: I’ve have two bills in Education Committee that are coming up next Tuesday. One bill is the Parental Protection Accountability Act for Private Schools. It has two portions: first, it says that private schools that accepts state funding or vouchers will need to conduct student assessment tests. Students will be tested so parents can know achievement outcomes. Second, private schools will have to take all students who come to their door, like we have to do in public education.

The Brookings Institute and the National Center for Education have both done long-term studies relative to voucher systems and school choice, and the results show no difference between the performances in public schools and those who have access to private schools. We’re getting ready to create a system of haves and have nots. That’s the way I view it.

My second bill will be more controversial than the other, if you can believe that. It says private schools must provide transportation for kids within a radius of 35 miles of their campus. Some have said the bill requires public schools to do this, which most do but are not required to do. But the bill specifically addresses private schools; the bill does not address charter schools or public schools. Some will say, “That’s unfair. That’s unconstitutional.” But it’s no more unfair than sending tax money to schools that discriminate and won’t take all who come to their door.

I’ll be the first to tell you that public education has its problems, which need to be addressed. We can work with districts by increasing teacher pay. My fear is we will get down the road and in 10 or 15 years, we will see this didn’t work. Only fifty-eight percent of the people in Arkansas live within five miles of a private school. If you look at students that are in failing schools, most of them have the highest proportion of free lunches. How would these students have transportation to and from private schools that they can’t even eat at home? Mom and dad are probably working two jobs. I’m not asking [private schools] to do something that public schools don’t.

For AR People: Thank you for filing both those bills and for considering the needs of students, especially those who don’t have that access to private schools, as you just mentioned, and for our smaller districts that may be struggling.

Rep Wooten: I’m worried about the kids… In Eudora, in Lake Village, Forest City. We’ve got to reach those kids.

For AR People: Thank you, Representative for taking time to chat with us. We appreciate your service to our state. 

Rep Wooten: Thank you so much.