Bell instrumental in creation of community colleges
“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,” wrote James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and Father of the Constitution, two centuries ago.
The scientific, economic, and social advances of any nation in history are always connected to how its people are to be educated.
In Arkansas, progress in education has often been slow, but several important leaders have stepped forward to advance the cause of knowledge and education. Among those transformative leaders was State Sen. Clarence Bell.
Clarence Elmo Bell was born in Camden in 1912. He graduated from Camden High School in 1930 and enrolled at Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia. He participated on several athletic teams. His skills and leadership led to an offer as an assistant coach when he graduated in 1934.
In 1935, he accepted the dual position of coach and principal at Parkin High School. In 1939, he moved to nearby Marked Tree to accept a new teaching and coaching position. Bell proved a popular and effective teacher.
In the meantime, even with a successful career and growing family, he decided to continue his own education and enrolled in summer graduate courses at the University of Arkansas, receiving a masters degree in 1940. The next year, he accepted a position as superintendent of Parkin schools.
Bell began his political career in 1956 and was elected to the state senate, representing Cross, Crittenden, and St. Francis counties. He served for many years as chair of the Senate Education Committee as well as the Senate Consumer Protection Committee. He continued to serve as a superintendent simultaneously until 1963.
With the inauguration of Gov. Dale Bumpers in 1971, a new push for education reform emerged. Bell supported a new law allowing for the first time public high school students would no longer have to pay for their own school books. The effect would allow poorer students who could not afford books to improve their academic performance and increase their chances of graduation. Bell also helped push through a bill in 1973 that required local schools include disabled children in a regular classroom setting as much as possible for the first time.
Bell also pushed through a new law, signed by Bumpers, allowing communities to form their own two-year junior colleges. These community colleges allowed students to either prepare for the work of a full university or gain two-year degrees in needed fields that did not require four-year degrees.
Communities across the state quickly seized the opportunity. East Arkansas Community College in Forrest City, in the heart of Bell’s senate district, organized in 1973 and began classes with 684 students for the fall 1974 semester. Garland County Community College in Hot Springs, now National Park College, opened in 1973. North Arkansas College opened in Harrison in 1974.
Though university leaders worried about the drain on resources to existing colleges, Bumpers argued that too many students in the state could not afford the tuition plus living expenses of distant universities. The junior colleges would allow them to save money, get a good education, and prepare to transfer to four-year universities at a later date. As a result, by the time Bumpers left office in 1975 with Arkansas ranking eleventh nationwide in geographic access to higher education. Distance was no longer a factor for college education in the state, and communities began using these new schools as important resources for job training and economic development.
Bell continued the progress on expanding the reach of higher education as David Pryor became governor in 1975. Through Bell’s assistance, the community college branch of what was then Southern State College, which is now celebrating its silver anniversary as the independent South Arkansas Community College, opened in El Dorado in 1975. Bell also helped transform Southwest Technical Institute in Camden into a full-fledged, degree-granting community college as SAU Tech.
As the 1992 election approached, Bell, at the age of eighty, decided not to run again. He retired from the state senate at the end of his term in 1993 after nine terms. He returned to Parkin and entered into a quiet retirement before his death in 1997. His thirty-six year legislative career transformed higher education in the state. Education leaders in Arkansas have since called Bell the legislative father of Arkansas community colleges.