The road to mediocrity is paved with missed opportunities, and few states lay down the lackluster asphalt with as much fervor as Arkansas.
The state Education Board’s rejection on Monday of the proposed consolidation between Weiner and Delight is the most recent glaring example of the imagination deficit that keeps us constantly vying for the moniker of the Forty-Niner State.
Just once, it’d be nice to actually lead on an important issue, to be the state that honestly lived up to our old nickname as the Land of Opportunity. Instead, state board members unanimously adopted the ostrich stance and, along with their heads, buried a genuinely innovative approach to rural education in the suffocating sand of the status quo.
Weiner and Delight had an unusual idea. Rather than consolidate with contiguous districts, which typically results in the closure and loss of local campuses, the two districts proposed a long-distance administrative consolidation. The new district, to be called Arcadia, would have managed the two campuses, allowing each to retain its individual identity and advantages.
Both Weiner and Delight have high-performing schools that best the state average in areas such as test scores and graduation rates. Even more important, both enjoy immense community support and intense parental involvement, true keys to excellence in education.
The Arcadia proposal would have kept the local schools and their communities intact, but centralized the administrative duties under one board. The plan sought to bring the distance-bridging technology that powers interstate and international business to bear on rural schools.
But rather than giving the two districts an A for critical thinking—isn’t that the new bellwether for learning these days?—and a chance to test a model that might have revolutionized rural education nationwide, the board took a naysayer approach.
In spurning the Arcadia proposal, it invoked the oldest excuse for killing a new idea known to man: “Nobody’s ever done that before.” This inevitably leads to the infallible conclusion: “It won’t work,” or the even more pompous “It can’t be done.”
The attitude is reminiscent of Sears in the 1970s. Arrogant and unchallenged atop its towering Chicago throne, the world’s leading retailer was confident beyond certainty that it was impossible to inventory large retail stores in small towns and turn a profit.
And, at first, Wal-Mart’s notion of discount stores serving rural communities seemed quaint but unlikely to change or dominate the industry. Within a scant 20 years, the Sears empire had crumbled and the previously undisputed giant was facing multibillion-dollar losses from which it would never come close to regaining its supremacy.
The upstart that saw what Sears refused to even consider now has twice as many stores and more than seven times Sears’ sales revenue.
The incontestable truth is that Sears was incapable of doing what Wal-Mart did because Sears didn’t believe it was doable and thus didn’t try.
The state believes in bigger schools. Never mind that big schools are struggling in everything from test scores, often embarrassingly horrendous, to dropout rates to per-student cost. What seems to matter most is the efficiency created when one superintendent is spread out over 3,000 or 4,000 kids.
Forget the added transportation costs for busing consolidated students or studies from other states that show consolidation usually increases administrative costs overall. The word from the education powers that be has been handed down: It’s impossible to operate small schools in small towns efficiently. Period.
Sears couldn’t have said it with more oomph.
I remember when Arkansas license plates carried “The Land of Opportunity” at the top. The sad thing is that here in the sweeping, surging new millennium so ripe for innovative ideas, our state education board is content with being the Land of Missed Opportunities.
We could have at least tried the Arcadia district. Best case: It would have worked wonderfully, and Arkansas might have sparked a new trend for other states struggling to educate rural populations without destroying small-town schools. Worst case: It would have failed miserably, and we could have simply gone back to requiring a closer consolidation partner for the two districts. What would we have lost? Only a couple years more of high-achieving graduating classes at schools that parents and kids treasure and support.
But we would have gained valuable, factual knowledge, not mere speculation, about why it didn’t work.
To anyone seeking to propel our schools up the comparative ladder of state rankings, the inability of the top folks in public education to recognize a win-win situation is discouraging. It’s unclear what their closed-minded response to the Arcadia idea says about the state’s vision of public schooling, but we probably shouldn’t expect to be climbing out from the bottom of the barrel anytime soon.