Columns » Max Brantley

Same old same old

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I returned from a 10-day trip to Europe last Sunday to find things more or less where I'd left them. Oh, sure, the state Supreme Court had expressed displeasure with legislative foot-dragging on its order to make public schools constitutional. Bills had been passed, victories declared. But I kept seeing children. Children in a historically undernourished school system. Children in a system being debated only at the point of a judicial gun. Children in a system that, to most legislators, is perfectly fine just like it is. I still saw a legislative process aimed at doing the bare minimum required. This session has never been about children. It has been about preserving the jobs of criminally overpaid school superintendents; about legalizing nepotism; about preserving athletics before all else; about preserving a system in which accidents of birth determine whether a child has an elementary education rich in specialists and remedial help and a high school education rich with possibility. It has been about paying the least possible and, when money must be paid, putting the heaviest burden on those least able to pay. At least one prominent Arkansan seems to fundamentally agree with me, or I with him. That would be Gov. Mike Huckabee. The work to date has been lame and insufficient, he says. He hopes the court or voters will someday require more. In fairness, I sounded out some education believers who are still fighting for incremental victories. Counterspin me, I asked. Their points: Never before has the legislature voted to consolidate schools. Voters did, in 1948, with a 350-student minimum for grades 1-12, against today's 350 for K-12. This may seem like no gain, but a subsequent referendum for a 400-student floor was beaten in every county. Polls today don't show support for consolidation as a stand-alone proposition. The funding formula, for the first time, is tied to needs - percentage of poor children in a district, for example - and the state commits to funding education first. Yes, this formula leaves too much flexibility to local superintendents (which is why superintendents, of big and small districts allowed it to pass). The formula also likely guarantees the death of still more small, inadequate districts. So-called accountability legislation, with more student testing, will provide a road map to improving classroom instruction. To doubters like me, they add that the bill was necessary to remove legislative and lobby roadblocks to tax increases. If the legislature pumps $400 million more into schools, as seems possible, that can't be viewed as a bad thing, regardless of the source of the money. In all, says David Matthews, lawyer for the Rogers School District, "It is a step. A good step." But is it enough? I don't think the David Matthewses and Jim Argues of the world believe so. I think they hope a strong special master will list shortcomings, maybe even a need for more consolidation, and force the legislature to do more. This positive thinking presumes, of course, that the legislature will complete action on a total school package - standards, district structure and financing. At this writing, that's still not a sure thing.

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