Vision 2010

Posted on January 1, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Even before the calendar actually rolled into the 2000 range of numerals, the inevitable link with visual acuity was well under way.

Many organizations adopted “Vision 2010” or “2020” in the 1980s and 1990s as titles for their 21st century planning initiatives. One enterprising optometrist has even trademarked the phrase “2020-The Year of Optometry.”

As we enter this new year, it’s appropriate to note that 20/10 vision is superior to 20/20. The latter is considered an average reckoning of the block letters on the old familiar Snellen eye chart. A person with 20/10 vision, in other words, can distinguish objects at half the distance of an average person.

So it should be with our sometimes backward state as we gaze forward on some important education issues. Trends from other states tend to trickle inland, and often by the time our population is considering matters, there’s already an observable track record in place.

It doesn’t take 20/10 vision to see that history is prone to repeat itself across state borders unless we learn from it and put those lessons into action, so in the spirit of the holiday, here are two areas in which a little foresight (or heck, even hindsight) can save us a lot of waste in time, energy and resources.

Public School Consolidation–Small schools, sometimes even very good small schools, continue to fall prey to Arkansas’ arbitrary minimum student figure. The fact that we base closings on a head count, which has nothing to do with the measures of a good education, indicates that economics is the primary goal of our consolidation plan.

But the most exhaustive investigation of consolidation in a small, rural state suggests that one would have to be blind to believe that closing community schools saves money. West Virginia has trodden the very consolidation path we have been sold on with disastrous results.

Similar to Arkansas in many respects, the sales pitch for consolidation in the Mountain State was almost identical to what proponents promised here. Tens of millions of dollars in savings were projected, but after closing more than 300 schools, and losing 40,000 students in the process, the state wound up with 16 percent more central office administrators (those with no student involvement) than before.

Increases in transportation costs, necessitated by busing students to consolidated campuses, weren’t calculated, either, which washed out all the promises of advanced curriculum enhancements smaller schools weren’t delivering.

Distrust and enmity continues to resonate among West Virginian parents and patrons. A bond proposal to build a $49 million consolidated school replacing four smaller districts was defeated in October by a resounding 77 percent.

Arkansas has no busing plan in place for its consolidation program, which is inexcusable given the extraordinarily long bus rides consolidation created for kids in West Virginia.

And our finance-only focus is not only suspect (Weiner’s school, near Jonesboro, is being closed despite higher than average test scores and lower than average comparable Delta school costs), but also flies in the face of the latest research on school size indicating that smaller is overwhelmingly better for poorer students.

True foresight would be the introduction of the nation’s first Rural Education Plan, essentially a reconstruction of smaller districts with a can-do attitude toward operating successful schools in small communities.

One former West Virginia superintendent, Matt Edwards, who helped defeat the recent consolidation bond, said it made far more sense to send teachers to small, isolated schools to deliver the required course work than to bus kids around. Alternatives to consolidation abound, he said, but we must be looking to see them.

Lottery Tuition Funding–Arkansas is late to the lottery game, which ought to mean we will benefit from other states’ experience. Like Arkansas, low-per-capita-income South Carolina’s stated mission for its lottery was to help more students afford college.

But eight years after the lottery was introduced, out-of-pocket costs for students at two of the state’s largest universities had far outpaced the lottery scholarship amount. In fact, right after the lottery dollars started coming in, tuition fees started going up-at more than three times the 10-year average rate prior to the lottery.

I couldn’t find any tuition audit provision to the Arkansas lottery, which is inexcusable considering that a South Carolinian, presumably privy to the scholarship erosion suffered there, is leading our program.

The good news for the new year is that it’s never too late to open one’s eyes. We don’t need to wait and sadly see, in 2020, that consolidation didn’t save any money or that lottery scholarships increased students’ cost of college.

Just like the letters on an eye chart, the facts from comparable states stand clear to see. Preventing their mistakes from being repeated here will take more than vision, however. It’ll take real resolve.

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