Amid the partisan barbs over campaign financing at the gubernatorial debate in Jonesboro on Monday night, there was an outburst of remarkable common political sense.
When asked about proposed legislation to repeal Act 60 of 2003, which mandated consolidation for any school falling below 350-student enrollment for two years, both candidates agreed it was bad law.
Democrat Mike Ross said he was receptive to repealing it entirely, and Republican Asa Hutchinson wobbled a little over a full repeal, but took a strong stand for waivers to prevent well-performing schools below 350 students from being closed on numbers alone.
Calling consolidation as implemented a “mistake,” Ross said he would be receptive to “reviewing legislation to try to stop some of these schools from closing, especially those in rural areas that require young people to spend way too much time riding a school bus.”
A Governor Ross’ bottom line: “I think you should measure education based on quality rather than quantity.”
It’s so refreshing to hear common sense coming out of Little Rock on consolidation.
Hutchinson’s more watered-down approach is to provide waivers for small schools that are financially sound and performing academically.
He cited a new study “which showed that in some school districts, students are on the bus for 5 ½ hours.”
“Bus transportation,” he said, “has to be a factor to be considered when you’re looking at that magical number of 350 and what happens whenever you close it, including what happens to the community as well.”
The problem with waivers is they can be denied. High-performing small schools shouldn’t need permission from the state bureaucracy to exist.
Hutchinson said long bus rides were “unacceptable.” Hopefully a Governor Hutchinson would ultimately view Act 60 “unacceptable” in its entirety as well, and support repeal.
The reason this horse-sense breath of fresh air straight from the candidates’ mouths is so exciting is because few education statutes pushed the folly envelope further than Act 60, which elevated consolidation fever to Ebola-esque hysteria.
Three widely discredited myths somehow managed to achieve legislative critical mass back in 2003: (1) consolidation saves money; (2) small schools can’t meet education “standards;” and (3) they cost too much.
Had many (any?) legislators cast a glance West Virginia’s way, they’d have seen how widespread district consolidation in that state actually raised administration costs. And also how student access to advanced curricula went down, not up.
As for “standards,” that refers mainly to state-established course offerings. Every Arkansas school district must offer and staff 38 curricula units, even though the state minimum to graduate is 22 units: 16 from the Smart Core and six from career-focused units.
In small schools with small class sizes, there may not be demand for a full 38 units, creating the silly situation in which a school that doesn’t offer a course for which no students wish to enroll fails to comply with standards.
How about measuring real standards, like average ACT score, graduation rate, dropout rate, college-placement rate, Benchmark scores and so forth?
If you’re trying to comprehend the logic that says a school with a 21.8 average ACT score (the Arkansas average is 20.8), a 100 percent graduation rate, zero percent dropout rate and Benchmark scores that exceed the state average by 30 percent must be consolidated if it only has 342 students—stop.
That was Weiner’s school, and its closure is incomprehensible. Especially when there are so many larger schools with abysmal marks against those kinds of real standards.
On Benchmarks, for example, Little Rock Fair High School musters a miserable 11 percent proficiency. But the district offers all the required units and has more than 350 students—and thus meets state standards with flying colors!
When it comes to comparing costs, small schools are often a Consumer Reports best buy. Weiner put up all those stellar statistical student achievements at a per-pupil price consistently 20 percent lower than the Little Rock district.
It was legislative dereliction that Act 60 was implemented without requiring studies about student transportation and community economic impact.
Ten years and 100 closed school districts later, there seems to be surprise at bus rides stretching into 3, 4 or 5 hours a day. Nobody could have done a little travel math and figured that out in advance?
And any state action that puts 75 or more people out of good, professional jobs in a small town warrants a broad cost-benefit analysis.
It won’t be enough for the next governor to simply deep-six Act 60. There needs to be a reclamation process for qualified closed schools (like Weiner) that wish to re-open. Otherwise the courts will get involved.
The sad, dishonorable truth is that Act 60’s arbitrary 350 number is the flawed product of a misguided political effort that never had anything to do with improving education at the student classroom level.
For a decade consolidation has been practiced while leaving students out in the cold. Thankfully—and perhaps more than a few “Hallelujahs!” were whispered under breath during the debate—it appears our next governor may finally restore reason to school-consolidation policy, and at long last bring students and learning back to the forefront.