On Monday, the State Board of Education agreed to let the 357-student Bradley School District merge voluntarily with the not-that-much-bigger Emerson-Taylor School District. It’s a marriage of convenience, but one both sides are entering voluntarily lest they be forced to do it later.
Why does this matter to you? Because it’s yet another sign that the school consolidation that some have wanted to do quickly is instead happening slowly.
According to a history prepared by Kellar Noggle, former executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, the state had 4,734 school districts in 1927. That number quickly fell to 3,086 in 1933 and kept falling to 1,901 in 1947. By 1983, there were 369. Following the education reforms of the 1980s, the number dropped farther to 341 in 1986 and 312 in 1995.
Both Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Gov. Mike Huckabee proposed administrative reforms to make the state’s public school system more efficient. Tucker in 1995 proposed keeping the state’s 312 school districts but creating 34 powerful regional boards overseeing them. Opponents said the plan would lead to forced consolidation and it went nowhere. In 2003, after Arkansas was sued a second time by the Lake View School District for inequitable funding, Huckabee proposed setting a 1,500-student minimum for school districts. That proposal led to such a a brouhaha that he joked that he wouldn’t be venturing much outside his office until it was safe.
Instead of 1,500, the Legislature set a minimum 350-student requirement. That’s been a core principle in the state’s strategy for providing adequate and equitable education funding for all students — and for staying out of court. The state apportions money based on a district’s student population, and when all the dollars are counted, it equals roughly $10,000 per child. The thinking is that with fewer than 350 students, there just aren’t enough dollars to pay the bills and teach all the subjects students need.
The result? When 2004 began, there were still 306 districts. By July of that year, there were 254. Since then the decline has been gradual, but the momentum continues. As school districts near that 350-student minimum, parents begin to send their children elsewhere, hastening the districts’ inevitable demise. That’s why Bradley chose to proactively consolidate with Emerson-Taylor.
The 350-student minimum largely has accomplished its purpose. It’s helped make funding relatively equal regardless of where a student goes to school. It’s making the system more efficient so that taxpayers aren’t paying for closely neighboring schools that really ought to be merged. It’s keeping the state out of court.
But it doesn’t always serve the best interests of schools or the state. The obvious example is the Weiner School District in eastern Arkansas, which was forced to consolidate with neighboring Harrisburg. Weiner had high test scores and healthy finances, but it fell below that arbitrary 350-student threshold. During this year’s legislative session, Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, proposed doing away with the number and basing consolidations on academic and financial outcomes, but it didn’t pass because any such change must have evidence supporting it or the state will return to court.
There are victims in this story, but there probably aren’t any villains. People simply are moving to where there are jobs, opportunities, health care, and all the things more readily available in cities than in the country. When that happens, schools dry up along with their communities.
Moreover, just because school districts consolidate doesn’t mean schools do. Emerson-Taylor is the result of voluntary consolidation, and it kept schools open in both communities and plans to keep a school open in Bradley.
Finally, there’s this. During the same State Board of Education meeting that led to Bradley’s annexation, residents of Jacksonville made progress in splitting their schools from the Pulaski County Special School District.
That would be a good move. Pulaski County is a sprawling district that forms a doughnut around Little Rock and North Little Rock. Those weak community ties have helped make it, year in and year out, one of the state’s most dysfunctional districts. Bigger is not necessarily better.
So while Bradley and Emerson-Taylor are getting married, Pulaski County appears headed to a divorce, and the number of school districts will remain at 239. However, the long-term drop in the number of districts will continue. Because of state policies and because of the choices that people make, more schools will be finding ways to live together, for better or worse.
• • •
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnerstevemac.com.