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Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Ark. Leaders Confront Tough Options

Ark. Leaders Confront Tough Options

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It was one of the toughest decisions Ulicious A. Reed had ever faced: vote for the state of Arkansas to close his hometown high school in hopes of a better education for his students, or keep the school open and the community of Marvell alive.

It's the kind of stomach-knotting choice leaders in Arkansas are facing, after a county judge struck down the state's school finance system last year. Today, that decision is driving what may be the state's most determined effort ever to evaluate how its children are educated.

Mr. Reed and his colleagues appointed by the legislature last year to the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education have approved a long list of recommendations that might turn education in Arkansas upside down.

Among the 25-member commission's most controversial ideas is a recommendation that high schools expand course offerings, especially in small and rural schools like the one in the Mississippi River Delta town of Marvell where Mr. Reed is the superintendent.

Under the commission's plan, schools that are too small or too poor to make the additions would have to merge with neighboring schools into "regional high schools."

The panel also wants significant teacher-pay raises, preschool for every 4-year-old in the state, and public school choice as part of the regional-high-school plan.

It is unclear what state lawmakers will do with the recommendations that the commission approved in June, as they feel the heat of an election year and await a court decision that might choose the next steps for them. There's little doubt, however, that schools will be a major topic when the Arkansas legislature convenes here in January for its biennial session.

Meanwhile, the state board of education has appointed its own advisory panel to study many of the same issues as those the blue-ribbon group weighed.

The Arkansas Supreme Court is expected to decide by year's end whether to uphold the lower court's decision or to side with the state and overturn that ruling.

Either way, the state appears to be too invested in the process of change for the soul-searching and tough decisions to end, even if the high court upholds the current system of paying for schools.

For his part, Mr. Reed recently warned the commission that the potential high school consolidations might perpetuate racial segregation in some of Arkansas' rural schools. At the same time, he saw in the panel's plan a chance to offer his students bigger schools with more options.

So, as the panel finalized its recommendations, the Marvell superintendent reluctantly cast his vote on May 29 in favor of the regional high schools. There wasn't anything else he felt he could do. "What this is," Mr. Reed said later, "is an opportunity."

'Life of Deprivation'

The debate in Arkansas might be different, or even nonexistent, if the little, one-school Lake View district hadn't sued the state in 1992, demanding more money for rural schools.

Lake View finally won the latest round of the case last summer. But, given the changes that are under discussion, the court victory may, in the end, be as hollow as an old, dead log.

A place of natural beauty, Lake View is marked also by obvious poverty.

The town, really just a bend in the road about 60 miles southwest of Memphis, Tenn., sits along snake-shaped Old Town Lake, a narrow but stunning body of water marked by hundreds of root-exposed trees towering above the surface. Dozens of mobile homes line the winding lakeshore, single-file, and people fish from the muddy banks and a few wooden docks.

Within a minute's drive of ever-present rice fields are the little Town Hall building; the school, which serves fewer than 200 K-12 students, all of whom are African- American; and not much else.

A recent tour of the Lake View school provided a glimpse of sparse hallways, with grungy walls and floors in need of deep cleaning and fresh paint. Christmas lights strung along the ceiling were among the few decorations.

The broken windowpane in a doorway leading to a playground could slice open a child's hand.

Lake View's principal, Jimmy Wilkins, and the district's superintendent, Leon A. Phillips Jr., both declined to answer questions about the lawsuit. The lawyers for the district, who are seeking $43 million from the court for legal fees, did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.

In his May 25, 2001, ruling, Pulaski County Judge Collins Kilgore recounted testimony that showed the sorry state of the Lake View district:

  • The town's only high school math teacher was a part- time substitute who lacked state certification and doubled as a bus driver. He wrote test questions on the blackboard because paper was in short supply.
  • The Lake View Dragons didn't have enough basketball uniforms for everyone, and no other team sport was offered.
  • The school boasted a 95 percent graduation rate, one of the highest in all of Arkansas, but every student who proceeded to college needed remedial work once he or she arrived.

Lake View's test scores, which Judge Kilgore did not specifically mention in the ruling, are among the lowest in Arkansas. Last year, 82 percent of the town's 4th graders scored "below basic," or among the lowest 25 percent, on state tests in mathematics. In reading, not a single Lake View student in any grade scored above "basic," and almost all were "below basic."

In his ruling, Judge Kilgore declared that the low test scores in rural and needy school districts, and other failings of the state education system, could not be allowed to continue. Intertwining the ideas of equity and adequacy, he ruled that even if Arkansas were financing schools equitably, the state would not be fulfilling its constitutional responsibility unless it also supplied the kind of education that students need.

One area that many Arkansans believe should be addressed is teacher salaries. Arkansas ranked 43rd on the American Federation of Teachers' 2001 average-salary survey: It paid $33,700, compared with the national average of $41,800. Only Mississippi ranked lower among the Southeastern states, and Mississippi has passed two ambitious teacher raises since then.

"Too many of our children are leaving school for a life of deprivation, burdening our culture with the corrosive effects of citizens who lack the education to contribute not only to their community's welfare, but who will be unable to live their own lives except, in many cases, on the outermost fringes of human existence," Judge Kilgore wrote in his decision last year.

Rather than spell out a remedy, however, he left the problem in the state legislature's hands.

If given the final choice in the matter, it's clear how some lawmakers would decide.

"The Lake View school district should not exist, regardless of this lawsuit," said Sen. Dave A. Bisbee, a Republican from financially booming northwest Arkansas. "They've got 200 kids there that are coming up short on education."

Decision Time

In listening to the blue-ribbon commission, lawmakers, and others debating the fate of Arkansas' schools, it becomes clear that fixing education won't be cheap. The commission's best guess: $700 million or more over the next few years.

Finding that kind of money seems unlikely without new taxes or major cuts elsewhere. Times are so tight these days that Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, recently summoned the legislature for a midyear, budget-cutting special session.

One way to direct money to where it's most needed is to consolidate high schools, says Stacy Pittman, the co-chairwoman of the blue- ribbon commission and a public relations executive here in Little Rock. If she had her way, consolidation probably wouldn't stop there.

Arkansas can make better use of its money and improve education by urging schools—and districts— to combine, Ms. Pittman argues. Her evidence: Of the state's 310 school districts, 195 have fewer than 1,000 students each, but most have full-time superintendents. Nearly 100 of the districts have fewer than 500 students.

Efforts to preserve small districts are less concerned with education, Ms. Pittman contends, than they are with "the Friday-night basketball game"—meaning, retaining local sports programs.

But consolidation would not go far enough to generate the needed funding, says David Matthews, a lawyer from northwestern Arkansas who represented a group of wealthier districts in the Lake View case. Mr. Matthews, who also serves on the commission, reminds his colleagues that without more spending—even in better- off schools—the state may not find its way out of court. "The amount of money that goes into education has never been based on what we need to do. It's what we've got left," said Mr. Matthews.

Raymond Simon, the director of the Arkansas Department of Education, scoffs at the $700 million figure. "You've got to be realistic. I hope the supreme court is realistic," he said.

He backs less expensive reforms, such as setting minimum teacher-student ratios, and prohibiting the smallest districts from employing full-time superintendents.

He also plans to urge the state school board to seek extra pay for teachers who mentor new teachers, or who work in remote or high-poverty schools.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas School Boards Association is hosting public meetings across the state in what Dan Farley, the executive director of the group, says is the largest undertaking of public debate in state history.

"We have to be open to all possibilities in Arkansas that we've never been open to before," he said. "Is the legislature going to have the courage that's going to be willing to do that? Do we have the leadership in the executive branch? I don't know that."

The Delta Way

Down some lonely highways, about 20 miles from Lake View, sits the town of Marvell, population almost 2,000. It feels much bigger than Lake View, with an actual two-block downtown, a few shops, and two sprawling public school buildings.

Superintendent Reed has lived and worked in the town all his 62 years, except for one when he accepted a science fellowship in Kansas. The blue- ribbon panelist indeed cast his vote on the commission for regional high schools, but he also fears the plan could lead perilous places.

The most likely scenario for Marvell would be to combine with the smallest and poorest schools in Phillips County. Those include the schools in Lake View and the ones in Elaine—one of a handful of troubled districts now actually run by the state.

While many Delta towns and counties tend to have roughly equal numbers of black and white residents, most black students attend the public schools while most white students enroll in local private schools. That isn't the case everywhere, but it's the way it is in Marvell.

Schools in the larger town of Helena and the mostly white community of Barton might opt out, since they could probably afford to meet the standards.

"No one is going to have a regional high school unless they can't afford their own school," Mr. Reed said. "If the legislature could provide enough money for every high school to provide an enriched curriculum, that would be what we want. In reality and being practical, I don't think it's possible."

Mr. Reed said his schools could not afford to add more teachers, or pay for their training, to reach those and other goals proposed by the commission. He estimated the extra costs would require a $1,250 property-tax increase on a $50,000 home in Marvell.

"It's so unrealistic," Mr. Reed said, "I couldn't vote for it myself."

As for his neighbors down the road in Lake View, that district could end up with a very different place in state history from the one its leaders might have imagined when they initiated the lawsuit.

"I can understand why they're bitter. They've won, but they've really lost," said Sen. John A. Riggs, a Democrat from Little Rock known as a leader on education issues. He sponsored the bill in the legislature that established the blue-ribbon commission.

Even if the state makes Lake View and other communities like it shutter their schools, the town's legacy could be that it pushed all of Arkansas to figure out ways to make education better for every last one of its children—if the high court, legislators, and others can figure it all out.

"It could be the greatest gift that community ever gave to Arkansas," Sen. Riggs said.

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Pages 1,28-29

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