Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

EDITORIAL 05-31-06 >> We're making real progress

A study by the Rural School and Community Trust concluded last week that the effect of a school consolidation law enacted in 2004 was to close 47 schools, primarily schools that were predominantly black and poor. The head of the rural school advocates that paid for the study said she was “shocked” that the study told the group what it wanted to hear.

Tiny rural schools in the Mississippi Delta region, the poorest and often predominantly black, were the ones most often closed after legislation required school districts with 350 or fewer students to be annexed or consolidated. Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville was a prime sponsor of the law.

The advocacy group that hired the study, which fights school consolidation, thought those results showed discrimination and were proof that children in those districts were penalized.

The administrators of those little districts who lost their jobs may have a gripe, but for the children it is a victory that most of them will one day have cause to celebrate, not mourn. For 60 years, Arkansas has been consolidating these tiny districts and sending children to high schools that offer them far more opportunities. That and not mere economics was the reason, we like to think, that the legislature in its wisdom decided again to consolidate districts with fewer than 350 students. An initiated law by Arkansas voters in 1948 at once shuttered 1,165 schools smaller than 350. It is the single greatest advance in public education in Arkansas, which has precious few advances to hail.

Who really could be shocked that the schools most likely to be closed after administrative consolidation would be in the Delta? The all- or mostly black schools were so poor of resources that they could not offer a solid curriculum, compete for good teachers or provide modern facilities or equipment, and they begged for closing. Three-fourths of the majority-black schools in districts under 350 were closed.

Little Gould south of here, very poor and overwhelmingly black, closed last fall and the kids went to nearby Dumas, a thriving district with a solid program. The superintendent at Dumas said patrons at Gould supported the merger. Wise they are. Their children will one day thank them. We have been in that circumstance ourselves.

This is not an argument over which is better, a big school or a small school. There is much to be said for educating students in units that are small enough to maintain community and to recognize individual achievement. But these are not reasonable compact units. The schools are so small and generally so poor that they can never give children, at least secondary students, more than the most meager fare. There is one caveat. Taxpayers willing, the state could provide far greater subsidies to those schools to overcome their deprivation. There is no evidence that Arkansas taxpayers are so obliging.

After the mergers, not one of the children from the little schools is now attending what anyone could rationally call a large school. The consolidated schools are still small and rural — ever been to metropolitan Dumas or Barton? — and in some cases children are only marginally better off than they were because the merged schools are still relatively small and poor. But still better off.

Advocates for Community and Rural Education want to turn the consolidation act into a tragedy in hopes of rolling it back or discouraging more. Let us resist making this small stride for the neediest kids in our care a setback and compliment our lawmakers— and the good Gov. Huckabee — when they do something right.