I’m just going to tell you what happened and you can make of it what you will.
I was in a conference room high in a downtown Little Rock office tower on Sunday afternoon letting Bill Halter, the candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, explain to me his proposed “Arkansas Promise.”
That is his idea to give Arkansas a fighting chance in this rapidly changing economy by guaranteeing every Arkansas school kid with a 2.5 grade-point average a tuition-paid college education in the state. He would use his lottery scholarships as the foundation, then plug in grants, donations and, he thinks, no more than $50 million to $75 million a year in general revenue.
A $50,000 investment in a youngster’s higher education could produce, studies show, an additional million dollars in lifetime income. Halter thinks that’s a pretty good deal.
He says if we don’t move aggressively to catch up and gain ground, then we will go backward in a world that now moves this fast: One of our biggest companies, Google, didn’t exist when today’s 10th graders were born. Another, Facebook, is not yet 10 years old.
The next billion-dollar phenomenon that will have changed the world in 10 years probably hasn’t been thought of yet, he said. And you have to be educated to hope to be a part of it, he said.
So, anyway, what happened: Halter was telling me of his distress that Arkansas has always been 48th or 49th in every meaningful ranking. He was telling me that the typical Arkansas tragedy is that, somewhere along the way, low-paid Arkansas parents accept the reality that they can’t afford to send their kids to college, and the kids get that signal, and dreams vanish. And he was telling me that the great equalizer in our society is the maternity ward, where everybody shares the same concern — that the baby will be fine — and everyone shares the same dream, that the kid soon to enter the world will get a college education. And then it doesn’t happen for many of those parents and those kids.
He became emotional. His eyes dampened and he had to pause.
So is this the robotic, overly opportunistic, cynically ambitious, personally remote Bill Halter whom I and others have described?
Or have we found a real and noble passion within?
It’ll be a long governor’s race in 2014. Maybe we can answer that along the way.
Halter seems to be banking on the notion that this governor’s race could be about something different from the state’s mad rush to right-wing extremism and different as well from a columnist’s personality-driven, poll-driven commentary.