Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, says improving children’s reading will be a priority for better educational outcomes, and he believes 3,000 new prison beds may be needed to address the state’s public safety challenges.
Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Hester, who was elected to lead the State Senate in the 94th General Assembly, said public education has a spending problem not a funding problem.
“More money in education isn’t solving any problems. We’re already spending over 40% of the state’s budget on education, and we’re failing. We’re failing students, we’re failing teachers, we’re failing everywhere,” he said. “So the money is not being spent appropriately. This is not a funding problem, this is a spending problem. We’re going to have to really dive in on how the money that we’re already sending is being spent. And with over 40% of the tax dollars in Arkansas going to education, you can’t argue we’re not spending enough. We are spending plenty. We’re not spending it right.”
Hester said he plans to work with Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders to adopt a number of education reforms, including more parental empowerment, in the regular session that begins in January.
“A third of Arkansas kids, a third of them, can read at grade level and that’s kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s not acceptable. It’s been that way forever. And if we want to change things, we’ve got to act differently, we’ve got to have different philosophies and different processes coming through our Department of Education,” Hester said. “Kids have got to read before they can do math well, kids have got to read before they can do anything. So we’ve got to focus on reading and a lot of that is also going to go back to parental empowerment.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed an additional $550 million in education spending in the balanced budget he submitted this week. The outgoing governor said the money could be allocated for teacher pay raises, if the legislature desired. Hester said the money spent on education needs to have more focus on reading.
“I’m going to be a proponent of removing almost anything out of the way that’s keeping these kids from reading. They can become well-rounded after they can read,” he said. “Kids do not have to do as much athletics. They do not have to do as much art. They do not have to do as much band. They do not have to do as much science. They do not have to do as much history, if they can’t read. Once they can read, then they can focus on history, then they can focus on science, then they can focus on things – band and music and art and other things – that are critical to a well-rounded student. But all those things are secondary to reading.”
Hester said the 94th General Assembly will also center on parole reform and adding prison beds. Lawmakers and state officials have begun the process to locate a new 1,000-bed state prison. Hester said that is not enough.
“Some people say 1,000 beds. I say we need 3,000 beds, right? And we’ll continue to talk about that as the legislature. But the good news is when you have a significant amount of savings, and we do, we’ve got a couple of billion dollars that are available to us, you really have options,” he said.
Arkansas finished its last fiscal year with a $1.6 billion surplus, but has allocated about $600 million of that for accelerated tax cuts. Budget officials expect the state to have a $600 million budget surplus at the end of June 2023, and there could be another $555 million budget surplus in the next two fiscal years. The state also has $2.7 billion in reserve and rainy day funds.
“Now, I’m not interested in spending all of that money, but when you have savings and you have significant needs – and prison beds is a significant need in Arkansas. We’ve got violent offenders that we’re having to turn back out into the public that are harming people. It’s making them unsafe at their homes, making them unsafe in their streets. We’ve got to get more prison beds to keep violent offenders locked up,” he said.
Hester said he expects tax cuts to be considered this legislative session, depending on economic conditions, and he predicted there would be “tinkering” with the state’s Medicaid expansion program due to the new administration and new lawmakers. He also talked about his election as State Senate leader and the stripping of seniority of Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale. You can watch his full interview in the video below.