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Published in Print: March 12, 2003, as Compromise Emerges to Fix Ark. Schooling

Compromise Emerges to Fix Ark. Schooling

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Gov. Mike Huckabee has set forth a plan to overhaul how education is provided in Arkansas, as state leaders work against the clock to comply with a state supreme court decision declaring the education system unconstitutional.

Handed down in November, the ruling gave the legislature the task of devising a more equitable way of financing schools and reducing disparities between districts that the judges said have not improved in decades. ("Court Orders Arkansas to Fix K-12 Funding," Dec. 4, 2002.)

The court gave the lawmakers until next year to satisfy its mandate.

Gov. Huckabee, a Republican, originally proposed a school reorganization strategy that would have given the state the power to hire and fire district superintendents, assume greater control over school spending and accountability, and require small districts to consolidate into larger ones.

But after local school officials expressed concerns about the concept, a compromise has emerged that seems to have won broader appeal. The governor's revised plan would, among other measures, assure that no schools were closed solely because of consolidation and would allow local boards to retain the authority to hire and fire superintendents.

Three Classifications

By next January, according to the governor's blueprint, three classes of districts would exist in the state.

Unified districts would have 1,500 students or more in kindergarten through 12th grade. Districts with fewer than 1,500 students would be consolidated into a single one with 1,500 or more students. Those smaller districts could also be assigned to a regional district or consolidated with a unified one unless they apply to the state board of education for a special status. District leaders would have to prove they could meet high standards for curriculum and management before the state would confer that status.

"In order to offer a rich curriculum to all students, we must have the economy of scale to make it affordable," Gov. Huckabee said in an interview last week. "A K-12 district with under 1,500 students will not be very efficient."

The Arkansas Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union and often a critic of the governor, along with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, endorsed the recommendations last week at a press conference at the state Capitol.

Sen. Jim Argue, the lead sponsor of the governor's proposal in the Senate, said that while Mr. Huckabee's new draft would offer districts more flexibility, the state must assume a more integral role in education to comply with the court decision.

Reorganization of districts is critical, the Democratic legislator added, to building a more streamlined education system that offers rigorous courses, improves teachers' salaries, and begins to reduce the glaring disparities among districts.

"Deference to local control is not acceptable," said Mr. Argue, the chairman of the Senate education committee. "This is an opportunity for Arkansas to seriously improve its public schools," he said.

"The governor's proposal is a reasonable, moderate approach that deals with district reorganization and not school closure."

Gov. Huckabee is optimistic that the plan will pass the legislature, but he said he knows it could be a tough fight. "Momentum is building, but we are a long way from joining hands and singing 'Kumbaya' at the campfire," he said.

Raymond Simon, the director of the state education department, worked closely with the governor to shape the plan. "This is an important first piece in the overall solution."

Status Quo?

As Arkansas leaders work to realign the state's 310 districts, a joint legislative committee has formed a commission to complete a study of school finance adequacy that is due no later than Sept. 1.

While many educators, lawmakers, and representatives of the business community have rallied around the reorganization plan, some legislators are wary of giving the state too much control over education. Sen. Paul Miller has proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit the rights of judges to order local districts to increase taxes to pay for education.

"It would take the courts out of mandating the schools to do certain things," said Mr. Miller, a Democrat.

He anticipates that some may see his position as defending the status quo. "That's not the case," he said. "We should reform our schools on our own and not have some judge tell us what to do."

Sen. Miller, along with other lawmakers, has also come up with an alternative to the governor's school reorganization approach. His bill would give schools more autonomy than the governor's.

But Stacy Pittman, the chairwoman of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce board, said lawmakers and other opponents of a more prominent state role are ignoring reality.

"We certainly have a mandate from the court, and we have some lawmakers who believe we don't have to abide by that mandate," said Ms. Pittman.

"The process has been slow," she continued. "The loudest voices have been those who want to protect the status quo. It's been difficult to find loud voices on behalf of change. A lot of people are afraid of change."

Vol. 22, Issue 26, Pages 19,21

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