Tom Dillard: Arkansas unfortunately remains land of missed opportunities

If there is any consistency in Arkansas history, it is our propensity to shoot ourselves in the feet. During the more than 200 years since our founding as a territory, Arkansas has missed so many chances to take giant steps toward full participation in the American experience.

Today, we are getting ready to flit away another important opportunity: a state budget surplus of more than $1.6 billion.

I won't go into the nebulous nature of that surplus, but on the face of it, $1.6 billion could have a huge impact. This could be the year, if the governor and Legislature were willing.

Teacher salaries could be vastly improved, a necessity if we are to take education in the state to a higher level.

Unfortunately, it appears both the Legislature and the governor are going to use the surplus as an excuse to further reduce the income tax. This will, over time, increase the regressive state sales taxes. Thanks to ultra-conservative depression era Gov. J. Marion Futrell, our Constitution was amended to require a 75 percent majority to raise taxes excepting the sales tax.

Arkansans of yore were not willing to pay for giant leaps, so today our state ranks near the bottom on nearly everything-- especially in educational matters.

The first great blunder in education was our inability to start a public school system, and the neglectful manner in which federal support for a "seminary of learning" was flitted away by ignorance and avarice.

Arkansas became a state in 1836 under a Constitution that authorized state officials to develop a public school system. However, when the federal government set aside every 16th section of land in every township in the state to sell for education purposes, state officials deferred to local officials in selling the land, overseeing the income and running the schools. Only a few communities had anything approximating a real school.

Early efforts to establish a state university -- or "a seminary of learning," in the language of the day -- also came to naught. When the federal government offered large tracts of land to sell to endow a university, the state reacted slowly and without resolve. Squatters who were living illegally on federal land were given title to the land without having to buy it. Prices were drastically reduced from the original $10 per acre.

In 1950, the great Boston Brahmin historian Samuel Eliot Morison published a revised edition of his majestic history of the United States, "The Growth of the American Republic," which contained this biting comparison of the sister states of Michigan and Arkansas:

"The first Michigan Legislature created a university, at Ann Arbor. The first Arkansas Legislature was remembered for a fatal brawl, when the Speaker of the House came down from his chair and slew a member with his bowie-knife." Morison could have gone on to say that Arkansas did not get a state university until Reconstruction.

Arkansas historian and educator John Hugh Reynolds has noted that the failure of the early leaders of Arkansas to take advantage of the seminary lands set Arkansas back many years: "How heavily Arkansas lost in her failure to regard the university fund as a sacred trust is beyond estimate."

If you are shocked that our antebellum ancestors failed to develop an educational infrastructure for Arkansas, be prepared for even worse results when it came to setting up a banking system for the new state.

As with education, the 1836 state Constitution provided for creating a system of banks. The state set up two separate institutions: the Real Estate Bank, intended to provide credit to farmers and planters, and the State Bank, meant to meet the needs of the merchant community.

The State Bank was the first to be launched. By the autumn of 1837, state bonds in the amount of $300,000 had been sold to the Secretary of War. The State Bank erected a fine headquarters in Little Rock, with branches in Fayetteville, Arkansas Post and Batesville. The State Bank loaned money with abandon and little oversight. The Arkansas Post branch loaned $60,000 on its opening day alone.

The Real Estate Bank got its start in 1838 when the state managed to sell $1.5 million in state bonds. U.S. Sen. Ambrose H. Sevier of Arkansas browbeat the newly endowed Smithsonian Institution into buying $500,000 in bonds. The bank was, as historian Michael B. Dougan has written, a "planter-run bank." Land provided the security for loans from the Real Estate Bank, and often at inflated prices. Oversight was minimal. Sen. Sevier himself got a $15,000 loan backed by 1,080 acres of land.

The first bank to fail was the State Bank, with $2 million in debt by 1839. The Real Estate Bank declared bankruptcy in July 1841. In the aftermath of the failure of its initial banking system, Arkansans reacted by outlawing banks altogether. This left our state without a source of much needed capital, and without funding to develop the infrastructure of a fledgling frontier state.

Our failure to create a public school system, establish a state university, or develop a banking system are three of the most damaging results of our tendency toward self-inflicted wounds. The banking prohibition ended with Reconstruction, and today Arkansas has a richness of financial institutions. Reconstruction reformists also began a state university. But this was not the case with public schools.

Although the Reconstruction leaders set up a public school framework, funding and administration was left up to the local schools. Making things far worse was the post-Reconstruction 1874 Constitution -- which limited tax funding for schools at three mills.

As Michael B. Dougan has written, within two years after the end of Reconstruction, only "15,890 students were enrolled, and Black schools in particular were hit by what one missionary called the 'starvation plan.'"

Things did not get much better as the decades passed. As late as 1948, the state had 1,589 school districts, many of them open only a few months per year. According to Dougan, as late as 1966, 31 Arkansas schools did not offer a full course nine months of instruction.

The one consistency during all these years was low teacher pay. The surplus, even if it is real, will not fix two centuries of educational neglect, but $1.6 billion would go a long way toward making a genuine impact on teacher salaries.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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