Arkansas Suit Claims District Consolidations a National Threat

By Mary Schulken — July 09, 2010 1 min read
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Does forcing small rural school districts to consolidate create a national emergency? That’s the argument being made in a creative federal lawsuit filed in Arkansas claiming the state’s mandated closing of rural schools threatens the country’s security and food supply.

Here’s an excerpt from the lawsuit, filed by Friends of the Weiner School District: “The current statutory scheme in Arkansas closing schools in agricultural districts of the state has the potential to have a catastrophic effect on the national commerce,” the suit said.

The attorney representing the group explained it this way in an accompanying court filing: “Farmers, and those who work the farms, are this state’s and country’s first line of defense in protecting our food and agricultural infrastructure and resources. To ensure that this first line of defense is strong and capable of performing this critical function, the rural communities in which our agriculture and food supplies are being produced must stay livable.”

A judge will decide whether that claim is outlandish or whether it has merit.

The suit, filed June 30 in federal court in Little Rock, challenges the state’s law mandating the closure of school districts whose enrollments drop below 350 students for two years in a row. The state ordered the closure of the Weiner School District, which was merged with the nearby Harrisburg School District on July 1. (Read a television report about the last graduating class.)

Beware: This issue is ensnared in a highly partisan governor’s race. It’s best to keep that in mind when you read about it. Democratic incumbent Gov. Mike Beebe defends the state’s 350-student minimum. His challenger, Republican Jim Keet, has aligned himself with the small school districts.

Here are some links that bring in the political overtones:
Lawsuit filed (Comments offer a good debate of the larger consolidation issue if you can wade through the hyper-local ones.)
Jim Keet’s statement
Max Brantley, The Arkansas Blog

Election battles aside, consolidating small schools remains an issue with significant impact on rural students and rural communities. For a thoughtful and thorough insight into the effects of the policy, read this opinion piece in the Daily Yonder from Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

Here’s a short tease:

Consolidation might make sense where merged districts are relatively small. But it is outmoded in contemporary rural America, given continuing population decline across wide swaths of the already depopulated countryside. Consolidation proponents are asking the wrong questions and pushing the wrong option for children and communities.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.