Leader Blues

Monday, February 02, 2009

EDITORIAL>>Stimulus plan for schools

With the state treasury still relatively flush and unemployment running a little below national levels, Arkansas may not expect rich dividends from the giant economic stimulus package that Congress will enact in the next two weeks. It will provide a sizable booster to the economy through some traditional avenues like student aid, food stamps and extended unemployment, but the governor and the congressional delegation ought to seize the opportunity to do much more — if that opportunity has not passed.

One of the biggest objectives of President Obama’s stimulus plan is modernization of the public schools, and that is where Arkansas is perhaps neediest of all the states. Arkansas has $500 million or more of immediate needs for new, expanded and rehabilitated schools, all of it identified by a survey ordered by the courts in the Lake View school case. The state has dedicated hundreds of millions of surplus state funds for the improvements, but a major problem has been that most schools have been unable to produce their matching share of the construction costs.

Why couldn’t or shouldn’t the schools’ share come in the form of federal assistance? With the state matching it would provide a construction boom around the state that would create thousands of jobs at a federal cost that ought to be appealing to Washington. Nowhere, we would guess, would the president get more bang for the federal buck. That might require some tinkering with the statutes, but the legislature is in session with little of importance on the agenda.

Governor Beebe’s executive secretary said they had urged the state’s senators and congressmen to make the case to the administration that Arkansas should not be shoved to the margins because its treasury and job market are not as decimated as Michigan, California or Ohio or nearby states like Mississippi. Arkansas’ desperate problems with education infrastructure ought to make that case easy.

In the old days, Arkansas would have been in particularly perilous straits with pork barrel since it gave the new president one of the worst clobberings in the nation. We can be thankful that Lyndon B. Johnson is not still president. Those slights were not forgotten. But this president says that political rewards and punishment will not be part of his policy, and the evidence so far suggests that deeds will follow words.

We have a fearful suspicion also that while economic doom has been slow to reach Arkansas, the worst is yet to come. By summer, the cupboard at the state Capitol may be as bare as those of the big manufacturing states. No one can predict that now, so the governor and our congressional delegation, which is not a powerhouse, will have to make the case eloquently for the state now. There may not be another stimulus program.