I'm a NASCAR fan. I got interested a few years ago when I made a snide comment about "watching cars go around in a circle." A parishioner gently chided me, "You only say that because you don't know any better. If you'll let me teach you, I'll bet you'll like it." He was right. I loved it.
NASCAR is a family-owned enterprise. CEO Brian France is the grandson of founder Bill France Sr.
NASCAR knows a fair race promotes competition and excitement. The France family knows it is human nature to cheat or to spend money to gain any advantage. So the France family keeps NASCAR competitive by regulating it.
NASCAR imposes strict, all-encompassing regulations to try to ensure the race cars will be as equal as possible. They want a fair competition that will be won by the most skilled, most strategic driver with the fastest pit crews making the wisest adjustments to the changing track conditions.
Every part of the race car is regulated. Templates for the car body have to be within tiny margins. NASCAR supplies the fuel so nobody can mess with the formula. Safety gear is mandated. Each week there is a new competition for drivers to earn places at the start of the race. And everybody starts on the first lap.
Thanks to meticulous oversight from the top, NASCAR is an exciting, competitive sport, and it is incredibly successful.
Our culture could learn a few things from NASCAR. In the race for academic and economic success in our society, a privileged few who inherit fast cars get access to the inside tracks that are well paved and a shorter distance to the finish lines. Whole communities of other people are relegated to the muddy dirt tracks on the outside lanes. And some start the race several laps behind before they ever reach the starting line.
It is the role of government to make the race a little bit fairer: "to establish justice" and "promote the general welfare," as the Constitution says. It is government that has the oversight to ensure every person has the freedom of a fair chance to develop his God-given potential for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But too many people don't get a fair shot at the starting line and others lack access to the parts and fuel, the pit crew and repair garage that will allow them to continue their race with hope.
My grandkids are among the privileged. Our 3-year-olds are both in wonderful pre-K programs where they are learning and growing socially and academically. We've got the money to pay for that private education. They are already a lap ahead of kids without pre-K.
Abundant research has proven that the most powerful tool we have to boost student reading and achievement is pre-K education. Kids who do not go to pre-K start first grade considerably behind their classmates, and research tells us they never catch up. They stay several laps behind. Quality pre-K closes the gap. It's the best investment we can make in our children's academic potential.
In 2008, Arkansas became a national leader, funding a public pre-K program for low-income and at-risk children. No, it's not universal pre-K, but it was a good start for the kids who need it most.
Since 2008, there has been no increase in Arkansas' pre-K funding. Costs are going up and enrollment is suffering. We're losing the race for our children.
Arkansas now has an unexpected budget surplus, and money is available for the governor's recommendation and for the legislature's appropriation. The debate seems to be this: Should we fund a $16 million cost-of-living adjustment to pre-K--getting us back to where we were in 2008--or should we give another tax cut to the high earners?
We already tax our poorest families at more than twice the overall tax rate we tax our wealthiest. If your family earns $17,000 a year, you are paying more than 13 percent of your income to various Arkansas taxes. If you are privileged to be in a family earning $250,000 or more, you enjoy a 6 percent Arkansas rate, and some legislators want to lower that.
No, it's not fair.
Let all our kids be competitive. Get them in the race. Fund pre-K education, and watch them run. Let's take a page out of NASCAR and make sure every first-grader gets to the starting line healthy, secure and ready to compete. It starts with strong public education.
Lowell Grisham is an Episcopal priest who lives in Fayetteville. Email him at [email protected]
Commentary on 03/17/2015