HOT SPRINGS, ARK.
TO gauge how much Gov. Bill Clinton has been able to excite Arkansans about education, visit Hot Springs.
This outdoor-recreation center and tourist haven raised cash and services worth $2.4 million for the planned Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences, defeating six other cities vying for the facility.
Arkansas will be one of 12 states with such a school when it opens next summer. The state will pay tuition, room, board, and all other costs for its 300 top 11th- and 12th-graders in math and science. It is one more step in Mr. Clinton's effort to transform Arkansas from having the nation's worst public education system, as a 1978 General Assembly study concluded.
"He's brought us a long, long way from where we were," says Sandra Key, president of the Urban League of Arkansas. Two weeks ago, the National Education Association's annual convention endorsed Clinton by its largest margin ever.
Clinton reformed Arkansas schools in three phases. A 1983 legislative package set minimum standards for schools. For instance, only 46 percent had offered physics. Now all must. Class sizes were shrunk. More counselors were hired. The school day and year were lengthened. The legal dropout age was raised. Enrollment in advanced math and computer science tripled. Arkansas was the first state to require eighth-graders to pass an exam to go to high school. Teachers opposed competency tests, but without them voters wouldn't have backed a sales-tax increase, 70 percent of which went to raise teachers' salaries.
Reforms in 1989 focused on accountability. Parents got the right to choose schools, provided that racial balance was maintained. The State Board of Education was allowed to force inadequate districts to merge with stronger ones. Dropouts under 17 faced losing their driver's licenses. Parents who refused to attend teacher conferences or who allowed students to be chronically truant could be fined.
Finally, in 1991 Clinton pushed an act through the legislature to reshape the state system to meet the 1990 National Education Goals adopted by President Bush and other governors. Arkansas also will offer $1,000 annual scholarships to 12,000 students who cannot otherwise afford college.
Observers credit Clinton for altering Arkansans' so-what attitude about education. "There's a different kind of acceptance of education as a long-term solution," says Mahlon Martin, president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. By many measures Arkansas still lags other states. "But when you look at where the state was and the resources we've had, I think we've done well," he says. "We've done better than hold our own."