In Arkansas, rural schools say no to merging

State fights over a plan designed to remedy funding inequities by consolidating students in better schools.

It's hard to grasp that, in the 21st century, schools can exist without Internet-connected computers, copy machines, or even staplers.

But here in Arkansas, these are mere inconveniences compared with the more basic problems facing the education system: schools with leaky ceiling tiles that, at times, crash onto the heads of students; students in rural areas who have never performed in a play - because there are no plays; students who have never spoken a foreign language - because there are no Spanish or French classes.

Arkansas, in fact, is facing one of the most acute education-funding crises in the nation. The situation has become bad enough that, after a special session of the Arkansas legislature failed to find solutions, the state's Supreme Court is appointing a "special master" to gather evidence and decide the future of the state's schools.

For many residents in rural areas with small yet beloved school districts, the debate comes down to what they call one nasty word: consolidation. That's what Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and others have proposed that districts do to lessen the disparities between poorer rural areas and wealthier urban ones.

But from the rural pulpit to the small-town football field, the message is "save our schools," even if it means sacrificing the ability to offer a rich curriculum.

Just how Arkansas rectifies these problems will be studied by other states wrestling with similar, though less severe, issues.

"Arkansas isn't unique as far as litigation on adequacy or school funding. What is unique is the hiring of a school master," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization in Denver that exchanges information among state policymakers and education leaders. "By this decision, you are finding someone to fix the whole school system."

Arkansas's schools have about 450,000 students in 300-plus school districts. Over the years, plan after plan has suggested consolidation, and the Blue Ribbon Commission - one of a handful of state panels that has studied education issues - suggested regional high schools.

Reasons to consolidate

As far as supporters are concerned, consolidation makes sense. While the number of schools has remained the same for about 40 years, attendance in rural schools is dropping as families move to bigger cities.

In addition, a significant number of small schools are within 20 miles or so of better facilities and teachers.

But Arkansas residents have fought consolidation as hard as Alabamians fought for the Ten Commandments. That's because in a state with few urban areas, the school serves as the community's social heart.

"It's a function of the community to educate children," says Lavina Grandon, a rural school teacher in Valley Springs who teaches at the same school from where she graduated and also serves as an organizer for the "Save Our Schools" group. "We have to cherish these small communities because without them, they'll lose everything."

Change is slow to come to these small towns, where generations of families possess deep-rooted traditions - playing sports and cheerleading, to name two of the most popular ones.

Indeed, football coaches are among those who have been most vocal in fighting consolidation. Many superintendents as well in these rural areas have opposed consolidation, in part because their salaries - which are relatively lucrative for such locales - would be on the line.

A year ago, Governor Huckabee, who is also chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board, first considered consolidating school districts with fewer than 1,500 students, especially at the high school level. The proposal hardly budged: Legislators shunned any change, thinking first and foremost about their political futures. Incumbent Huckabee forgot about his, opting last year to forgo a run for the US Senate.

The governor insists he isn't out to destroy small towns and school mascots, but that the state cannot have "1948 solutions to a 21st-century design." He's referring to Arkansas voters who, in the late 1940s, approved a measure that no school district would have less than 350 students.

Then and now

Of course, conditions were different back then: Some 200,000 households were without electricity, only 4,300 miles of roads were paved, (now, most of the 98,000 miles of roads are paved), and only 1.6 million people lived here (the 2002 figure is 2.7 million). In decades past, a small-town Southerner might reasonably expect to be born, live, and die in a small town - and one cornerstone of this lifestyle would have been the local schools.

But now, these schools are facing challenges in preparing students for the larger world. "The schools in parts of the state, especially the Delta area, have so many problems, and those students have no hope of going on to bigger things," says Suzanne Eckes, a former Arkansas teacher and now an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "They are underfunded and need to be desperately changed."

For Stacy Pittman, who has served on numerous education panels and is now chairman of the state Chamber of Commerce, consolidation would be preferable to stalemate at the Capitol. That stalling hurts the state economy, as businesses decide not to relocate to Arkansas because of its poor educational system.

Still, she cautions that the appointment of a special master has its own issues. "The last thing that's good is for a court intervention on any level - most especially for an issue like public education." But, she says, "It's in the best interest of the state to come up with a solution."

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