Rep. Bill Stovall, the very bright 43-year-old legislator from Quitman who will be the next Speaker of the House, is asking the public to have patience with this legislature. He says the 84th Arkansas Legislature is made up of the most inexperienced lawmakers in state history (because of term-limits) trying to deal with the state’s most complicated problem, its public schools.
So is it surprising that regular and special sessions lasting more than 150 days has not yet met the state Supreme Court’s decision to require an improvement of a school system that’s so bad that it is unconstitutional? Well, uh, no.
I’m one of those who are leery of courts running our schools. But last Thursday when 65 of the 100 members of the House of Representatives voted to consolidate school districts with fewer than 350 students, I decided that there was no chance of this legislature really improving the schools in all of Arkansas.
Therefore, I think the legislators should increase the taxes to provide the money to improve our schools and write a formula for running them that gives more help to poor schools’ kids. Then they should go home and leave the question of the number of school districts to the voters of Arkansas. Consolidation of all those tiny school districts is absolutely necessary if Arkansas is going to turn out brighter kids, and it is now plain that the lobbyists – the small-town superintendents trying to hold on to their jobs – have been so successful that no matter what happens, dozens of the tiny, pitiful districts will stay intact.
In the beginning, Gov. Mike Huckabee and those who want all Arkansas kids to get a good education no matter where they live proposed consolidating all districts that had fewer than 1,500 students. The elementary schools would stay where they are. Only the high schools would consolidate; and no child would have to travel more than 19 miles to reach the high school. But the tiny-school lobbyists said no, and the weary legislators who agree with Huckabee began to compromise, finally and sadly coming to a minimum of 500 students. But even that did not satisfy the rural superintendents.
Finally, last week most of the tiny districts introduced a compromise – a bill that would require consolidation of districts with fewer than 350 students. Many of the weary House members voted yes just to settle the argument, and the bill passed. On Tuesday, the House killed a bill to revive the 500-student proposal. It seems obvious that if the legislature passes any kind of consolidation, it will happen only to the 59 districts with 350.students and less.
As the governor said, that is “unacceptable.” How many young teachers of chemistry, calculus and foreign languages would want to come to a school district with fewer than 1,000 or 500 students? And if they did come to a tiny district, think of the expense of having a teacher in a class of two, three or four kids. Will we continue to deny children good teachers and a 21st century education just because they live in a small town? Studies show that increasing class sizes from 12 to 17 students will save the taxpayers $250 million a year.
So I think the governor is right. Let the legislators pass a school-funding formula and approve the revenue to pay for it and then go home. Five months is enough to deliberate anything. Then Huckabee and others thinking in the 21st century could design an initiated act to consolidate the small schools – those with fewer than 1,500, students, or 750, or maybe even 500 – that the people could vote on in November. I would hope that the Supreme Court wouldn’t interfere and be satisfied that the state had at least begun to meet its orders.
I feel sure that Arkansans would vote for the consolidation of the tiny school districts. They did in 1948.
Education in Arkansas was long neglected. It was the last state in the country to use taxes to operate its schools. In 1901, Gov. Jeff Davis said that the state’s schools were “almost perfect and needed no more money.” In 1921 a commission appointed by the legislature to study the state’s schools said: “For thousands upon thousands of children, Arkansas is providing absolutely no chance.” Gov. Junius Futrell in 1933 asked the legislature to stop funding schools beyond the eighth grade.
But things began to change in Arkansas after World War II when veterans returned after being in other states and other nations where education was cherished. They realized that it would never get better in Arkansas until most of the rural school districts they attended were consolidated and improved. In 1948, there were 1,589 school districts.
The Arkansas Education Association prepared an initiated act to consolidate all districts with fewer than 350 students, and 63 percent of the voters approved it, reducing the number of districts to 424. Diane Blair’s “Arkansas Politics and Government” quotes Arch Ford, education director, saying: “We never could have gotten the legislature to do it.”
Fifty-six years have gone by. We had nine state colleges in 1948 for our high school graduates to attend; now we have 33. We had 4,283 miles of paved highways in 1948 for school buses to travel on, and now we have 16,379 miles. Yet a majority of state representatives are willing to consolidate only the same tiny school districts that were eliminated in 1948.
Does that make any sense at a time when computerized robots are replacing humans on assembly lines?