Leader Blues

Monday, August 07, 2006

EDITORIALS >> Adios, Paron

Should anyone by now have any doubts, the seven justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court let it be known this week that they are serious about finally requiring the state to follow the state Constitutionís 130-year-old mandate that it provide a good education to every child, equally and efficiently.

How could anyone have doubted it when the justices, abiding the criticism of legislators, the governor and aspiring candidates for the job, the lawyers and interest groups, held onto jurisdiction in the Lake View school case through two regular and two special sessions of the General Assembly until the lawmakers and governor finally got it right? But some still thought that the court could not really be serious about requiring that education be delivered to children in rural areas equally and efficiently.

A few patrons around the little Paron school west of Little Rock sued to block the closing of the secondary school and transportation of the students to the suburban district of Bryant. They said the bus rides each day would be too long and they persuaded a Pulaski circuit judge, Jay Moody, to stop the closing and keep the school open this fall. The court order went to the Bryant school district, which had not even been a party to the lawsuit. Oops.

No one could have had any doubts about what the Supreme Court would do once the justices heard the case. But the justices had just begun their summer recess when Judge Moody told Bryant and the state Board of Education that the school had to remain open for the next school year while he pondered the case. He granted the temporary injunction, he said, because it was likely that he would rule in Paronís favor once he heard all the testimony. The justices ordinarily do not interrupt their vacations to hear an appeal unless the issue is grave.

Apparently, the justices thought this was such a case, although it involved a school in only one small community.
Judge Moodyís ruling was flatly illegal, all the justices concluded. How can you consider and grant an injunction when one of the two central parties, the school district responsible for running the schools, was not made a defendant so that it could respond to the arguments? Secondary students will start school this month at Bryant, as the school district and the state Board of Education planned.

This might have been an isolated case, only one of literally thousands in the past 75 years as Arkansas fitfully came to grips with the physical and financial problems of educating children in small towns and rural areas. But politicians, principally Asa Hutchinson, the Republican candidate for governor, made it a cause celebre. Hutchinson said tiny high schools anywhere in Arkansas would not be closed if he were elected governor.

The Paron case raised a new constitutional issue. Do children have a fundamental right to both short bus rides and the same school offerings that kids in rich urban districts get? It is an issue that thousands of us who met the bus at dawn out at the end of the road so many years ago never thought to consider. We would only be thankful later for the opportunities that consolidation gave us.

Unspoken in Paronís argument and Hutchinsonís shameless ploy is that the taxpayers of the state have a special obligation to children and parents in rural communities that want to have a high school down the road from them, preferably one with a quality basketball team.

The argument goes that if kids at Jacksonville, Cabot or Bryant can take instrumental music, French, physics and drafting, then Arkansas taxpayers are obliged to put up the money ó whatever it takes ó to see that children at Paron have the same opportunities right there and not have to go down the road to Bryant.