It’s never easy to admit being wrong, particularly for legislators.
But as parents and patrons from the Weiner school district pointed out this week at a news conference in Little Rock, closing their school is wrong.
I have previously mentioned that Weiner is a top public school in the state by almost every measure except enrollment; better graduation rate, better average ACT score, lower dropout rate, lower instructional expenditure cost. And I’ve previously wondered why the state would want to close a high-performing school that also enjoys strong parental and community support.
The answer has always come back to the same boogeyman: the law.
But isn’t law-making the stock and trade of legislators? It’s hard to reconcile everybody in government throwing their hands up about the law with the fact that we really don’t need legislators much if they’re not going to practice their craft, which ought to include correcting mistakes.
Consolidation in and of itself isn’t an evil concept. Indeed, consolidation is the appropriate action in instances where a small school doesn’t have sufficient funding to maintain its facilities, has lost local community support, isn’t meeting minimum learning standards and in general is shortchanging its students.
But just as Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Keet said on Tuesday, it’s better to have a school district with 342 students doing an excellent job of educating than one with 400, or any larger number for that matter, doing a poor job.
There are many laws that wind up delivering unintended consequences, but few where the fix is as relatively easy as it would be with Act 60.
Two issues shape the dilemma: (1) the arbitrary minimum enrollment number (350 students) and (2) lawsuits from already-consolidated schools if the law is changed now.
The first issue has already resulted in the state closing down good schools doing a great job by the state’s own standards for no other reason than an insufficient head count. That’s because the 350 figure is disconnected from any mitigating educational performance measures, creating situations where students sometimes get consolidated from a higher-performing school to a lower performing one.
That’s not good education policy or good government, since closed schools also hurt small communities economically.
As Beebe said earlier this week, the second issue is that districts that have already complied with the act and lost their schools will have their finger on the litigation trigger if Act 60 is repealed or amended.
Neither issue is intractable, and both have a fairly simple remedy available.
For Act 60’s enrollment requirement, it would be easy enough to modify the law to include an exemption clause. Broad community support, like that demonstrated by the Weiner residents working hard to save their school, is arguably the single most critical factor in local school success.
There’s no substitute for involved parents in the education equation. If state government could bottle the diligent dedication of the school supporters from Weiner and put it in the drinking water of every other district, its education problems would all but evaporate.
Exemptions to mandatory consolidation could include academic measures (test scores, ACT scores, graduation rates) as well as economic measures (per-pupil expenditure, local millage rates, administrative costs).
Isn’t it in the state’s best interest that any school turning out educated, college-bound students above the state average stays open and continues to serve its local community, especially if it’s also doing so for the same money (or less) as schools where students aren’t learning or graduating at the same rate?
As for Beebe’s worry about disgruntled victims of previous consolidations, the solution there is to simply modify the statute regarding the formation of new districts.
Currently, and inexplicably, Arkansas law sets the minimum number of students necessary to create a new district at 4,000. That’s crazy. There are only about 20 districts out of more than 300 with at least that many students.
By simply amending and reducing that mega-enrollment number to the same state minimum in Act 60, recently consolidated schools would have an opportunity to restore their districts. Granted, they’d have to meet the 350 number, but the same exemptions would apply regarding academics, finances and community support.
There’s more common ground here than the discourse suggests. When small schools are working well, the last thing the state needs to do is interfere. There are so many other larger schools needing attention that are either failing or struggling.
Tweaking Edmund Burke’s observation, all that is required for bad government policy to triumph in education is for good legislators to do nothing.
Many parents, in Weiner and other small communities, consistently go the extra mile to make their schools better. It isn’t too much to ask that lawmakers fine-tune education laws to make them better, too.