New law saves good small schools

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Bruce Cozart sponsored Act 377.
Bruce Cozart sponsored Act 377.
Sometimes the Legislature gets it wrong, sometimes it gets it right, and sometimes it gets it right after getting it wrong for a while.

The last was the case with Act 377, signed last week by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, which lets the Arkansas State Board of Education grant waivers from consolidation to school districts that fall below the usual 350-student threshold. As a result of that bill by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, a school district can remain open if it is not in fiscal, academic or facilities distress, and if keeping it open is in the best interest of students because of long bus rides.

The 350-student minimum was created in 2003 in response to court rulings in the Lake View case that put the state and its taxpayers firmly in charge of ensuring all students’ education opportunities are “adequate” and “equitable.” (The Arkansas Constitution uses the words “general, suitable and efficient.”)

The thinking was that districts must have at least that many students to provide the necessary economies of scale to accomplish those objectives, which is usually true. Generally, districts with less than 350 students cannot cost-effectively provide high-level math and science courses and other opportunities students need. Those districts typically are in declining communities that the rest of the state’s taxpayers are not responsible for propping up. Above all, policymakers feared that messing with the funding formula would land the state back in court. Every major education decision is made with that firmly in mind.

The result of all this is that, according to the Arkansas Rural Community Alliance, 53 high schools and 48 elementary schools have been closed. For the sake of both students and taxpayers, many of them probably should have been.

The problem with that arbitrary 350-student minimum is it confuses “impossible” with merely “difficult.” Against the odds, the Weiner School District was doing well. Its academics were among the best in the state. Its facilities were good. Its finances not only were sound, but its citizens recently had voted to raise their own taxes.

It didn’t matter. Because it fell below that magic number, it was forced to consolidate in 2010 with its larger neighbor, Harrisburg, whose students were not achieving at the same levels as students in Weiner. There’s still a Weiner Elementary School, but older students travel to Harrisburg now. To this day, taxpayers who live in Weiner pay higher millage rates than those who live in Harrisburg. So far, the district’s patrons have voted not to change that situation.

Michelle Cadle stood behind Hutchinson as he signed the bill into law and was handed one of the pens he used. Her family lives in what once was the Weiner School District. Her youngest child attends Weiner Elementary, but she drives her oldest to the Valley View School District 20 miles away.

The loss still stings, but she has chosen to channel her emotion into becoming an advocate for small schools. “We always said it was never about Weiner,” she said. “It was about doing what was right for all schools across Arkansas, so this was a victory day for us.”

Hutchinson made it clear that the law is “forward looking.” In other words, it can’t be used to reopen the Weiner district. Still, Cadle said the community is looking for alternatives.

There wasn’t strong opposition to this bill. It doesn’t do away with the 350-student minimum. It merely gives the State Board of Education a tool to use when there’s an exception to the rule, like Weiner. Districts in decline still will be consolidated.

More generally, education policymakers are concerned about the lack of institutional memory in the Capitol. Because of term limits, very few legislators were in office when the Lake View case was decided. The more the case shrinks in the rearview mirror, the more it will be forgotten – until somebody sues again.

That’s a valid concern. However, the fear of that happening shouldn’t lead the state to repeat a past mistake – or put more and more kids on long bus rides unnecessarily. Regardless of its size, if a district’s students are performing well, if its finances are sound, and if its facilities are in good shape, it shouldn’t be consolidated. It should be duplicated.

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