The city of Caraway could one day become a “computer mecca,” with students learning the skills of computer coding and computer science, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday.
Hutchinson, who attended the groundbreaking of Riverside East Elementary School, spoke to the nearly 300 people in attendance about education and the opportunity it gives.
A large percentage of the people in attendance were school-aged children and their families. Hutchinson said his parents taught him the value of having a good education and inspired him to go to college while growing up in a town, Gravette, which is similar in size to Caraway.
The sacrifice of his parents helped him go to law school, become a U.S. Attorney and a member of Congress, Hutchinson said.
The goal, Hutchinson told the students, was to work hard, apply yourself and good things will happen.
Hutchinson spoke to the audience about the state’s Academic Challenge scholarship as well as his computer science initiative.
He said state officials have encouraged students to do well on the ACT test, scoring at least a 32 on the college entrance exam, to be eligible for the scholarship.
The good news, according to Hutchinson, was that a large number of students were eligible to receive the scholarship. But, he said the bad news was that there was a $2 million shortfall in the funding of the scholarships.
Hutchinson said he would take $2 million from the governor’s Rainy Day Fund to plug the gap, making sure the scholarships would be funded.
As for the computer science initiative, Hutchinson said the program will teach students key skills for the marketplace.
The legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill this session to mandate the teaching of computer science in every high school in the state, starting this fall.
The program will also allow smaller districts like Riverside to use technology to teach the course. Hutchinson said the classes will be taught on a digital basis by the Arkansas Department of Education. He said while there have been some concerns over unfunded mandates from Little Rock on the issue, there will be an attempt made to reach as many students as possible early on.
“The classes will be taught digitally through the Department of Education free of charge, the first year,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson also said at least $5 million was appropriated to help incentivize schools to offer the courses.
As for the new school, Riverside Superintendent Tommy Knight said his district battled red tape in order to give their students an opportunity to “participate in a technological-rich building.”
Overall, Hutchinson said the new state budget does include increased funding for building new facilities. He also said projects like the new school are often made possible due to the work and sacrifice of school officials, parents and the community.
Hutchinson also fielded questions from reporters after the event.
The questions involved a plan to reform the state’s criminal justice system, bills involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the recent appointment of three special justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court to hear a case involving same-sex marriage as well as workforce training.
On the criminal justice reform issue, Hutchinson said he is hopeful that the overhaul will solve some of the issues facing the system.
He said the bill included increases in the number of parole officers, offering alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders as well as opening up bed space.
On the RFRA issue, Hutchinson said he pushed for a bill that would mirror federal law and that the bill that emerged from the session, Senate Bill 975, was a “good balance” that protected religious freedom and the diversity of our society.
Regarding appointments, Hutchinson said his selection of former Chief Justice Betty Dickey of Heber Springs, Circuit Judge Shawn Womack of Mountain Home and attorney Brett Watson of Searcy to hear the case was well thought out.
Critics of the appointment have cited published reports involving comments Womack made as a state legislator on the issue of gay rights.
Hutchinson said the three were “jurists and justices who are well-versed in the law” and that he chose the three based on their work in the law.
Hutchinson said he also met Thursday with a working group on the workforce training issue.
The meeting involved the discussions of how a state and regional board would be appointed, Hutchinson said.
The legislature also approved a bill this session to overhaul the state’s workforce training programs.
Under the new law, two-year colleges, high schools and technical centers would work together on workforce training issues.
Hutchinson said the reforms would provide opportunities to meet specific needs.
“The legislation aligns the job skill training with what business needs,” Hutchinson said of the new approach. “Then the money would flow to the two-year colleges or technical center.”