Summer is officially upon us, which means that the end of summer vacation is but a few weeks distant for the Razorbacks, who must return to Fayetteville (in grueling summer heat) to prepare for a new season under a new, if interim, head coach. The gentleman who will guide the team was installed after revelations of some ungentlemanly behavior by the previous coach. The university athletic director moved quickly to restore public confidence in the program by removing the offending coach; confidence in the team will depend on the success of the successor. Victories over Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe, the first opponents of the season, would be encouraging.

Summer is officially upon us, which means that the end of summer vacation is but a few weeks distant for the Razorbacks, who must return to Fayetteville (in grueling summer heat) to prepare for a new season under a new, if interim, head coach. The gentleman who will guide the team was installed after revelations of some ungentlemanly behavior by the previous coach. The university athletic director moved quickly to restore public confidence in the program by removing the offending coach; confidence in the team will depend on the success of the successor. Victories over Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe, the first opponents of the season, would be encouraging.

But then comes ‘Bama, a real determiner of confidence. It would be nice if the Hogs went undefeated; although the fate of the state, nation and globe hardly depends on it, a perfect season capped by a bowl championship would give Arkansans, or that percentage of them who pay attention, a shot in the arm. Razorback fans are, by nature, believers. Sometimes dreamers, but believers. They have confidence because they have to have it. It’s an institutional confidence.

Would that that resolve extend to other components of American life, which a new Gallup Poll finds seriously lacking. In fact, according to Gallup, we of the U.S. rarely have felt as unconfident about our institutions. As regards public schools, supposedly the bedrock of the American experiment, never has the renowned survey organization recorded such a lack of confidence, truly a dismaying finding. I somehow doubt the crisis of confidence (and it is bi-partisan) is as egregiously widespread in Arkansas as is evident elsewhere in the nation, but that is one man’s anecdotal reflection, anchored not in public opinion research but day-to-day exchanges with his statemates. Yet the distress is there, plenty of it, palpable, and understandable, especially when Arkansans in our larger cities and smaller towns open their newspapers or turn on their televisions to read or hear of the latest controversy involving the things most precious to them — their children.

The largest school district in Arkansas, the Little Rock system, which was released from federal court oversight after a half-century, remains in federal court, arguing that it should continue to receive millions of dollars in state assistance for continued desegregation purposes. The third largest school district, the Pulaski County Special, is in receivership, administered now by the state, as is the Dollarway district in Jefferson County, while the adjoining Pine Bluff district fired its superintendent less than a year after his arrival. From Sebastian County east to Monroe and Phillips counties, districts as large as North Little Rock and as small as Hartford, Hermitage and Helena-West Helena, a dozen or more, are on (or off, or on-and-off) the state Education Department’s fiscal or academic “distress” lists. A federal judge at Fort Smith has just tossed a decade-old statute governing student transfers.

With intra-, inter- and extra-district disputes from border to border, it’s easy for Arkansans to overlook that, overall, the 470,000 students in our public schools are receiving a measurably better education than a decade ago, and that their parents are getting more value for their dollars — $5 billion from federal, state and local sources.

But back to Gallup’s numbers. In 1973, when it first measured American’s confidence in their schools, Gallup found that 58 percent of respondents had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the process and product. By 2007 the percentage of those polled who gave the public schools an (let’s call it) A or B grade had fallen to 33 percent. This year it is but 29 percent. Educators can take solace from the confidence rankings Gallup calculated for other American institutions. At the bottom of its ranked entities is Congress, getting an A or B from no more than 13 percent of those questioned. Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) did a bit better, but only a bit — 19 percent. Newspapers and television were given 21 and 29 percent favorable ratings, respectively. “The presidency” — not President Obama specifically — and the Supreme Court were awarded 37 percent overall positive ratings, putting the executive and the judiciary substantially above the Congress. The only institutions to win majority endorsement in the survey were, in order: the military (75 percent), small business (63 percent) and the police (56 percent).

Interesting: organized labor and “big business” tied. At 21 percent approval.

We live in a skeptical age, not without justification.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.