On Thursday, Arkansas Rep. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) introduced a bill to combat Arkansas’s low childhood literacy rate. Senate Bill 349, which could generously be described as inventive, would tie state funding for school lunches to the literacy rate in each school.

Clark’s bill creates a powerful incentive to improve student outcomes. It’s also one of the most misguided, poorly-planned and outright cruel ideas I have ever come across.

The science on nutrition and learning is beyond settled, though a full-length study probably isn’t needed to prove that being hungry is distracting. Food security is key to educational outcomes. In 2018, University of Virginia researchers have found that food insecure children perform worse on educational assessments, with lags beginning as early as kindergarten. Ultimately, Senate Bill 349 would work directly against its supposed goal.

An analysis of Arkansas’s poverty and food insecurity rates makes the literacy bill seem even more baffling. According to 2016 data from Feeding America, 1 in 4 children in Arkansas struggle with food access and hunger. Simultaneously, according to 2016 data from the National Center for Children In Poverty, 26 percent of all children in Arkansas live in poverty. Everything about Senate Bill 349 seems to exacerbate some of Arkansas’s most serious economic issues.

None of that even touches on the objective cruelty of this measure. While the alleged goal of the legislation may be to whip teachers and administrators into shape, Arkansas’s most vulnerable children pay the price.

Even worse, children who receive assistance for their school lunches — those who are already at a disadvantage — are obviously going to bear the brunt of this bill. It’s not ridiculous to hold teachers accountable for their students’ outcomes, but it is entirely ridiculous to starve children in pursuit of that goal. Clearly this legislation crumbles under any sort of serious, critical review.

Good faith analysis requires good faith actors. With so little genuine evidence supporting the motivations behind Senate Bill 349, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Clark even has good intentions.

It is hard to believe that Clark is making a genuine attempt to improve Arkansas’s literacy rate, because it seems more like a grandiose political gesture. Senate Bill 349 is a flexing of political muscle, an exercise of state authority and an overt threat to public education.

The bill is Clark’s way of proving to any state employee that he can slash their budget, attack their clients and sabotage their work. Though at some level Clark may want to teach kids to read, all this bill shows is that he can starve vulnerable public school children if he so pleases.

I doubt the rest of the state legislature will ever take Senate Bill 349 seriously, or that it will ever make it past the state Senate. Regardless, the cruel intentions are still there. Arkansas’s children are a valuable resource and the future of the state. They deserve better than to be treated as a bargaining chip.


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