Cherry St. in downtown Helena Brian Chilson

Take a drive to Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Or maybe Brinkley, Wheatley, Pine Bluff or Helena-West Helena. In Little Rock, stroll west on Capitol Avenue from Main Street towards the state Capitol. You will see some similarities and some differences. In some of these communities, there are areas of absolute desolation. In Little Rock, there are places where the cracks are beginning to show, and some places where the cracks have widened to the point where the future looks bleak.

We have all heard people say that Little Rock would be booming if it just had a good school system. I often heard something similar when the Little Rock School District was involved in its long-running desegregation lawsuit. Many civic leaders told me that both the school district and the city would really start growing if we could just “get out of court.”

Advertisement

I never believed either one of those things, because I never thought the school district was the direct source of our major problems. The root cause is socioeconomic dysfunction, not education. The decisions made by school administrators and teachers matter, but they are ultimately less important than the prosperity or poverty of the surrounding community.

Arkansas LEARNS, the sweeping new education law pushed by Gov. Sarah Sanders, presupposes that the fix will be in schools, when the real fix will be in communities. LEARNS will actually make our problems worse, because it will disrupt and fracture communities.

Advertisement

There are some valuable things to be learned from looking at southeast Arkansas. The population of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas in 2000 was just over 15,000. The current estimate for 2023 is 8,608, with a projected decline of 3% a year for the foreseeable future. In 2000, Pine Bluff had a population of 55,085. The best estimate I could find for 2023 was 38,866.

Both cities have been through all sorts of studies, community task forces, consultants, master plans, revitalization efforts, and cycles of writing and receiving grants. The school districts that serve Helena-West Helena and Pine Bluff have been through multiple takeovers by the state Department of Education, and the school districts still rank very poorly by any measure used by the state.

Advertisement

Despite those efforts, Helena-West Helena and Pine Bluff continue to lose population and both appear to have very difficult times ahead. Their school districts’ costs per pupil, based on the state’s annual statistical reports, are way over the state’s average, and the trajectories of those communities remain unchanged.

And the LEARNS Act is supposed to fix these districts, and perhaps these communities?

Advertisement

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Fayetteville, Rogers and Bentonville. All have experienced explosive growth, and all have school districts that are at the very top of the state’s rankings.

Bentonville School District is full of so-called A and B schools. Is it because the school districts there do things much differently? Or is it because the district is full of prosperous, stable and upwardly mobile families in which the parents are much more likely to have college degrees?

Advertisement

As far as I know, there is no secret sauce in Bentonville. It is a good school district, and undoubtedly well-run, but the students there are not wearing magic thinking caps. They are entering school prepared to learn, and they are able to focus on schoolwork because they are not confronting external issues — poverty, hunger, unstable living situations — that derail the learning process.

There is no evidence that Pine Bluff and Helena-West Helena lost population because they had failing schools. And there is also no way to do a double-blind study that decisively shows that school districts in Northwest Arkansas improved as the local economy improved. But it is true that the schools in each general area went in different directions in correlation to their economic conditions.

Advertisement

Correlation does not mean causation, of course, but we can still learn a lot from this analysis. Personally, I am convinced that a school district’s academic performance is the result of the material well-being of its surrounding community.

To put it another way, school districts’ relative rankings are not leading indicators of community health. School districts are trailing indicators of community health.

Then there is Little Rock, sort of stuck in the middle between the state’s southeast and northwest. For those of us who love Little Rock, there is cause for great alarm.

Don’t be fooled by some of the latest civic pronouncements. Little Rock’s population and job growth are miniscule compared to surrounding communities. The U.S. Census Bureau has Little Rock currently growing at less than one tenth of one percent per year, or about 100 people per year. Other Central Arkansas cities are far outpacing us. Benton, for example, is adding 300 people per year — a growth rate 20 times that of Little Rock, relative to its size.

Advertisement

Community failure usually happens gradually, as fewer people want to work and live in an area. The decline is gradual until it is not, and then it is dramatic. Schools are usually the last institutions to crumble — after the civic clubs, churches, hospitals, municipal government and even grocery stores (think “food deserts”).

The Little Rock School District has some of the very best schools in the state. But it also has an increasing number of schools in neighborhoods that are troubled, and really only one school, Gibbs Elementary, that is showing improvement based on improving neighborhood conditions.

So what does any of this have to do with the LEARNS Act? First, LEARNS will do nothing in eastern Arkansas to improve overall student performance. It will actually harm communities by splintering schools and creating new and needless institutions with segregated student populations.

In Little Rock, the potential harm is even greater. The state’s own reports show that the vast majority of vouchers are not going for students who are failing. An incredible 95% of vouchers in the first year of LEARNS are going either to new kindergartners or to kids already attending some of the most exclusive private and parochial schools in the state. LEARNS enables some of the behaviors that result in community division and citizen disengagement.

Consider a hypothetical upper middle class Little Rock family with several children who are deciding between a traditional public school or a private alternative. A single voucher this year is worth more than $6,600, about the same amount as the property tax a homeowner would pay on a home valued at $575,000. A family with three kids could get a benefit of almost $20,000 per year from vouchers.

In some ways, I understand why a busy family would go to a private alternative under those circumstances. Why get in the middle of the sometimes difficult reality of public school if the alternative is more stable, more predictable and less stressful? And soon, the cost will be mostly subsidized by the state.

But if that family elects to send all three students to a private or church school, they have all but elected out of the community as a whole.

LEARNS was never intended to lift up students who need help the most. It is simply a taxpayer subsidy designed to build political support for professional politicians who don’t really care about poor children. (They are knocking many families off of Medicaid at the same time.) LEARNS will further concentrate students of greatest need in traditional public schools and compound the problems those traditional districts already face.

As some residents become even more insulated from the costs and consequences of public school neglect, places like Little Rock will become more segregated, more divided, smaller and have more failing institutions.

There are solutions to economic stagnation and decline. Other states continue to make major investments in manufacturing infrastructure. Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi are landing large assembly plants and manufacturing facilities for solar panels, lithium batteries and electric vehicles because they began to develop large sites for these uses years in advance. They did these things before any specific users were identified. In Arkansas, we are cutting taxes for the wealthy, rather than investing in our shared future. We are falling further and further behind.

I started this series of columns on Arkansas LEARNS talking about bluebirds, and I’ll end it the same way. I have had bluebird houses in my yard for years. I love watching the birds find the boxes, build the nests and lay their beautiful blue eggs.

It is wonderful to watch the dutiful parents work tirelessly to find food for the little baby birds. Both parents make innumerable trips to the birdhouse to feed the young ones, who rapidly grow feathers, going from tiny helpless creatures to recognizable little birds in just a few weeks.

The most perilous time is when the babies are ready to hop out of the house and try to fly. They struggle to stay in the air at first, and usually land on the ground, where they are vulnerable to all sorts of things that imperil them. Most of the babies skitter about the bushes, gaining strength and learning to fly.

But sometimes I do find a little bird motionless on the ground, unable to find the strength to live and keep trying. I think of all of the efforts to get that little bird to the point of leaping out of the box, on the verge of flying, only to have it all end in abject and irreversible failure. That one moment of sadness overwhelms the joy of watching the others fly away.

Student failure happens one precious child at a time, for many different reasons. Student failure is not an antiseptic compilation of test scores reviewed in a marble building by people with advanced degrees. It begins with unfit housing, cars that won’t start and empty milk cartons. It begins with tough, real-world conditions that are hard to face and harder to fix.

The governor, the legislature and the Department of Education have lost sight of that. They are elected, appointed and hired to take on the tough jobs, but they are choosing the easy way out. Giving vouchers to people who don’t need them is not the way.

I have the utmost respect for Dr. Sybil Hampton, the former educator and philanthropic leader who was among the first group of Black students to attend Little Rock Central High after the Little Rock Nine. We correspond and talk frequently about education, and she recently gave me a poignant thought about bluebirds. I now wonder if there is a little schoolkid in Helena-West Helena who knows the song, and ever sings: If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?