Arkansas School Reform Fight Nears Turning Point

 

Gov. Mike Huckabee will decide within days whether to call the Arkansas legislature into special session to tackle the most divisive issue his state has faced in 50 years: reforming a public school system the state Supreme Court has declared dysfunctional.

Huckabee says his only other option is to take his case for school improvement to the voters.

Either choice would violate an unwritten ethic of governance in Arkansas -- local control of education -- and the prospects of either is uncertain.

"It is a watershed moment for Arkansas," Huckabee, a second-term Republican barred by term limits from running for governor again, told Stateline.org.

Twice in 20 years, the state Supreme Court has found the Arkansas public school system unconstitutionally inadequate, and its unanimous decision last November included an uncommonly tart statement that the time for delay was past.

The Court said education was the responsibility of state government, not local school districts, and ordered that a plan to remedy deficiencies be in place by January 1.

All agree there is much to remedy. Teacher salaries, course offerings, student achievement and per-pupil expenditures in Arkansas are all well below regional averages and in some cases are among the lowest in the nation.

While some Arkansas students attend classes in university-quality surroundings, others struggle in outdated facilities with sagging ceilings, problematic plumbing and poorly equipped laboratories.

To educate its 450,000 public school students this year, Arkansas will spend $2.7 billion, the bulk of it from general tax revenue. Many small, asset-poor districts rely on the state for as much as 70 percent of their operating budgets and, despite the subsidy, still do not meet state curriculum standards.

"We're first in poverty and 50th in per capita income, and that speaks volumes for our lack of quality education," said Stacy Pittman, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and a school reform leader.

A consultant hired by the state has recommended more than $800 million in additional annual spending for curriculum improvements alone; a second, pending report on school facilities is expected to suggest a like amount.

Raising such sums would be formidable enough in a state tied with Mississippi for having the highest poverty rate in the nation. But it pales against the task of reconciling many cherished cultural norms in Arkansas with the economics of 21st century education.

When the legislature met last January, Mr. Huckabee put before it a sweeping reform program that would have consolidated almost two-thirds of the state's 309 local school districts.

Those with fewer than 1,500 pupils, Huckabee said, were impossibly inefficient and could not hope to achieve academic parity with larger school systems absent massive, unaffordable infusions of additional state tax dollars.

School consolidation has long been the third rail of Arkansas politics, and if Huckabee was willing to grasp it, a majority of the General Assembly was not. The outcry from rural legislators and educators was immediate and deafening. They attacked Huckabee's plan as the death knell for small town Arkansas, where local school systems and their athletic teams are considered sacrosanct. The administration's bill barely left the ground.

"It would tear out the heart and soul of the community," said Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, a Democrat from Crossett, Arkansas and a ferocious critic of school consolidation. "Rural schools are what the community relates to. It's something tangible they can hold on to."

Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Mr. Huckabee's principal legislative ally on school reform, contends the hometown pride is destructive.

"It's a pretty pitiful choice if the only way small communities can survive is by depriving their children of a quality education," Argue said. "By every measure, our state fails to prepare children for future success. The evidence is clear and convincing."

The debate has widened an already substantial gap between rural and urban legislators, and threatens to do the same among school officials. Leaders of the state school superintendents association tried to broker a compromise in late summer but it was crushed by rural educators, who represent a minority of Arkansas students but constitute a majority of the organization's membership.

Anti-consolidation forces have floated other alternatives, but none are believed palatable to the Huckabee administration which is soon to unveil a modified version of the bill that failed earlier this year.

After tentatively planning a special legislative meeting for December 8, Huckabee has wavered, citing a lack of legislative consensus. Sources close to Huckabee say he is considering a referendum proposal that would empower the state Education Board, whose members he appoints, to carry out the reforms rejected by the General Assembly. Foes vow to respond with their own ballot proposition, which would strip the executive branch of much of its authority over public schools.

"If we make the right decision we could be the next North Carolina," said Huckabee, referring to a state whose education system is widely admired. "If we try to defend the indefensible status quo, then we likely will doom Arkansas to third world status for a generation."

 
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