Jim Argue, a former state lawmaker and president of the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, died on Thursday at the age of 66, succumbing to a brief battle with kidney cancer. Argue played a major role in shaping education laws and building up the Methodist Foundation’s assets.
The long-time Little Rock resident served in the Arkansas Legislature from 1991 to 2008. He served in the House from 1991 through 1996. He then moved to the upper chamber, which included time as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Argue championed the advent of charter schools in 1999, though came to be wary of the scale of their proliferation and the repeal of some standards. He spoke to KUAR about the subject last October.
Then, in 2002, something big happened: a landmark decision that changed public education. The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of the Lake View School District.
"And it was an earthquake to public education in Arkansas. It changed the world. The Lakeview decision said there is no local control in Arkansas. Local control does not apply. It is a state responsibility to educate public school children across the state. And if districts fail to provide those students with an adequate and equitable public education, then the state has a constitutional duty to step in and correct the situation."
Argue says the court decision gave him hope. But, it also made him re-evaluate the role of charter schools as a solution to public education.
"When we passed the charter school bill, it was pre-Lakeview. And I was frustrated that I couldn’t fix the system for students, and charter schools gave me an alternative way of going about that. Post-Lakeview, I was re-enthused and became a believer again that we could fix the system for every student. So charter schools, though I don’t think they’re a bad thing, I don’t think they are the great tool or opportunity in 2017 that they were in 1999."
Argue says he’s been concerned with the weakening of restrictions made to charter schools over the years, including where and how many can be created.
"It seemed like subsequent legislatures were constantly making attempts to nibble away at the protections we had incorporated into the bill. There have been efforts in a number of legislatures to broaden the number of groups and authorities who can approve charters [and] to extend the terms of charters. And it just seems like it’s become less and less focused on students with the greatest disadvantages."
He says he’s concerned that charters are cherry-picking the best students, leaving the highest-need students in the public school district.
"I guess I kind of remain undecided [on charter schools]. But I’m uncomfortable taking choice away from parents and I don’t think we get where we want to go by just paying money to districts without expecting results."
Beyond the Capitol dome, Argue was an active member in the community, including transforming the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas. He served as its president since 1981. The foundation reports its assets expanded from $67,000 to more than $164 million during Argue’s tenure.
He was born in Texas in 1951 before going on to attend Little Rock public schools. Argue graduated from Hendrix College in 1973. He’s survived by his two daughters, Sarah and Emily, and his wife, Elise.