There You Go Again

Last Updated: March 12, 2009

This article appeared in the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
By Lavina Grandon, Policy and Education Director, Advocates for Community and Rural Education
Editor's Note: Lavina Grandon, Policy and Education Director of Arkansas’s Advocates for Community and Rural Education to an editorial, responds to an editorial entitled, “There they go again,” published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; February 10, 2009; page 16 (Editorial section).
It's become a habit if not a tradition. If ever residents of rural Arkansas dare to exercise their rights as citizens and object to the way people with money, political power, and judicial favor try to manipulate their lives, you can count on the Democrat Gazette to do its bit to try to squelch this little piece of self-determination.
As usual, the Democrat Gazette and the people it shills for are misrepresenting and sometimes telling outright falsehoods about rural schools. I refer to its editorial of February 10, "There They Go Again," the day before the Senate Education Committee hearing on SB249, which would have given school districts that have fallen below the state's minimum of 350 students four years instead of two to try to increase their enrollments before being forced into consolidation.
Falsehood #1. Democrat-Gazette: "[SB249] proposes to loosen the state's still new requirements for the size of school districts." The bill never proposed lowering or doing away with the state's minimum enrollment number. It would have given those districts affected or about to be affected by consolidation more time to implement measures to increase enrollment. All people in these rural communities asked for was timetwo years for the railroad facility and housing units being built in Turrell to generate employment and bring people back into the community; two years for the group foster home being built in the Weiner district to push their enrollment number above the 350 mark; two years for the economic development initiative in Delight to bring opportunities and jobs back into that community. 
Falsehoods #2-5. Democrat Gazette: "[With SB249] the tiniest and most inefficient school districts in Arkansas can keep on wasting the taxpayers' money and shorting their students when it comes to providing a full range of course offerings." That's actually four lies in one sentence.
First, calling these districts the most inefficient school districts in the state has to be deliberately misleading. The Arkansas Department of Education lists 12 school districts as being on "fiscal distress" for the 2008-09 school year. Not one of the districts at or slightly below 350 enrollment is on that list. In fact, Superintendent Chuck Hanson testified to the Senate Education Committee that Weiner will have over $900,000 in carry-over this year. The largest school district on the fiscal distress list has over 1,600 students, not under 350.
Second, the Democrat-Gazette claims these districts are wasting the taxpayers' money. Excuse me, but aren't the people who live in these districts taxpayers? Why is it wasting money to educate their children when it isn't wasting money to educate the children of Little Rock, Fayetteville, Springdale, Bentonville, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, West Memphis, Marion, Jonesboro, Helena/West Helena, El Dorado, Monticello, Arkadelphia, Mtn. Home, Harrison, Texarkana…. Are rural children disposable, that you can call educating these children "wasting money"?
Third, the Democrat-Gazette claims these small rural schools are shorting their students. The facts show otherwise. Excluding the Math Science School and a charter academy designed for very high achieving students, the top scorers on the end of course literacy exam the past three years have been very small schools—Mt. Pleasant (2008) and Rural Special (2007 and 2006). In fact, the top 25 scorers among traditional high schools on the end of course literacy exam for the last three years have each year included a significant number of very small schools—eight in 2008, seven in 2007, and eight in 2006. Sadly, three of these very successful high schools—Mt. Pleasant, Leslie, and Cushman—have already been legislated out of existence, and now Weiner is slated for extinction as well. 
Fourth, the Democrat-Gazette implies these schools are not providing a full range of course offerings. However, all of these small districts are meeting all standards of accreditation, including the 38 required high school course offerings. Many take advantage of distance learning to offer a variety Advanced Placement courses or transport their students to nearby community colleges for high-quality vocational courses.
Falsehood #6. The Democrat-Gazette claims those little districts [are] maybe in hopes that quality education delayed may prove education denied. Maybe that question should be referred to all smaller school districts that have been forced into consolidation with receiving districts that have lower academic achievement and a less stable financial situation. People at Mt. Holly, Holly Grove, Leslie, Paron, Elaine, and a host of other small schools are still bitter about that, and rightly so. How ironic that the Democrat-Gazette would distort the words of the great British Statesman William Gladstone that "justice delayed is justice denied" as an argument for denying a quality education close to home to rural children.
Falsehood #7. The Democrat-Gazette insinuates that the Lakeview lawsuit, which politicians and big business seized on as an excuse for consolidating rural schools, was about the need to provide an efficient system of public education in Arkansas. However, anyone who followed that lawsuit knows it was about the state's failure to provide funding for an adequate education to all children.
Falsehood #8. This one is second-hand, courtesy of Ken James, the commissioner of education, claiming that giving these small districts an additional two years to implement economic development plans and reverse population declines would be "a big step backwards." He claims it is would continue a "needless duplication of administrators and administrative expenses for at least another couple of years." In one three-way consolidation in 2004 that eliminated two superintendent positions as well as main office personnel and expenses, the district's administrative costs increased by 19%.
I did find a couple of truths among all of the Democrat-Gazette's deceptions:
Truth # 1. The defenders of the status mediocre quo in education never rest. Yes, and you need look no further than the Democrat-Gazette's editorial for proof. One tiny hint of giving those small but effective rural schools a chance to exist and the Democrat-Gazette must bring out its big editorial guns to bolster the weak case of Governor Beebe and Ken James that we are "going backwards." Shame on those who were cowed by that empty threat.
Truth #2. The choice is between the comfortable inertia that so many have grown accustomed to and the constant struggle to keep moving ahead. It is a constant struggle in rural Arkansas to keep moving ahead. Rural areas get little attention from the state when it comes to services and economic development. They have higher unemployment and higher poverty rates, yet their schools are some of the best in the state. Given the opportunity, they are ready, willing, and able to educate their children to the highest standards. Let us define the term inertia: It's the resistance of an object to change. In SB249 Senator Larry Teague proposed a positive solution to a serious problem for 12 Arkansas communities. It would have been a step forward for these communities to have a chance to improve their economies, increase their population, and keep their schools. But the Democrat-Gazette, ADE Commissioner Ken James, and Governor Beebe, who sent attorneys to testify against the bill, all want the same thing: They want nothing to change—no matter how many rural communities are damaged or rural students disadvantaged by long bus rides and crowded consolidated schools.
Change is inevitable, and blind adherence to a funding matrix and solutions already five years old in the face of new challenges and new circumstances—even in the face of lessons learned—will lead the state to another lawsuit just as surely as the state's ignoring the needs of a small, majority African-American district did the last one.

FACTS about the state's smallest districts:
  • There are currently 12 districts with 400 or fewer students. 
  • The 12 districts have combined budgets of almost $55 million.
  • They employ a total of 799 employees.
  • They are significant customers of 8 local banks.
  • A total of 92 local businesses would be significantly impacted by consolidation of these schools.
  • The 12 districts have an average rate of free/reduced lunch of 70.5%. Their students are disproportionately economically disadvantaged.
FATE OF districts already consolidated under Act 60:
  • 113 districts have been affected thus far by Act 60 consolidations.
  • 53 could be considered receiving districts.
  • 60 could be considered annexed or consolidated districts.
  • Of the 60 annexed or consolidated districts, 80% have lost one or both campuses (HS and elementary). 71 campuses have been closed by the reconstituted school boards.
  • Only 12 annexed or consolidated districts (20%) have had no closures.
  • Before Act 60, there were 13 small, rural African-American districts. Of those only 2 are left. Act 60 has closed 85% of small, rural African-American districts.
Read more from the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.