Columns » John Brummett

Tiny schools loom large

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The most horrible bill of last week’s special session passed overwhelmingly in the House and probably would have passed in the Senate if ever-steady Jim Argue hadn’t been so well-positioned.

It would have let the tiny Paron High School in rural Saline County — and countless other small schools — get relieved of the requirement to teach the full array of courses taught to all other kids in the state.

You’re thinking there must be more to it. Indeed, there’s a little more, though not so much as to make any difference.

Paron got consolidated administratively with Bryant in 2004, but, being a pretty far bus ride from Bryant, got to keep its high school open. Paron recently declared that it simply couldn’t teach all the high school classes that all high schools are under state mandate to teach.

Because of that, the Bryant School District has proposed to close Paron High, pending approval by the state Board of Education.

So, this little bill by Reps. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock and Dwight Fite of Benton came along to save Paron High.

It provided that Paron would be excused from curriculum standards so long as the missing courses were taught at Bryant. It said that Paron kids interested in a complete education would be hauled to Bryant a couple of times a week or that maybe a teacher from Bryant could be hauled to Paron a couple of times a week.

You must understand that the legislation didn’t spell out that it was for one school, Paron. That would be unconstitutional. Instead, it defined circumstances applying to Paron. So, the measure would have provided a blueprint by which small schools all across Arkansas could stay open without providing equal course offerings.

Nearly 90 of the hundred House members voted for this ghastly measure. Three of the seven members of the Senate Education Committee favored it, and there were signs that if Argue, the president pro tem and committee chairman, had called another committee meeting Friday afternoon, a decisive fourth member would have switched. That’s why Argue didn’t call the meeting.

Hutchinson, nephew of Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, whined that Attorney General Mike Beebe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was working behind the scenes to beat the bill.

There was nothing behind the scenes about it, Beebe told me Sunday.

He said his aide, Cliff Hoofman, told the other sponsor, Benton’s Fite, that the attorney general had official concerns that passage of the bill could well make the state vulnerable to further Supreme Court sanction.

Beebe is mildly inconvenienced by having to do the right and legal thing as attorney general while also depending heavily as a gubernatorial candidate on support in rural areas where they worry that their small and declining schools will be closed by all this pressure for adequacy and equity.

Uncle Asa thus confronts an opening to pander. He flirted with it the other day by talking about how we need to help small rural schools like Paron.

Beebe so far displays delicate and deft balance on his tightrope.

While he properly opposed the Paron bill, he properly supported the provision that passed to give a new funding cushion to declining Delta districts that get poorer as they lose students, thus rendering unequal the opportunity they are able to provide the kids who are left. Beebe quoted language from the Supreme Court that seemed to advocate that very kind of special help for impoverished districts.

As for the success of small-school advocates last week in lowering the mandated teacher raise, Beebe again quoted the Supreme Court, or, in this case, its masters. They said a variation in teacher pay among districts was acceptable because they didn’t want to deter districts from doing more than what was mandated by the state.

Regarding my contention that a school district too small to keep up on salaries ought to be consolidated — well, let’s just say that the Democratic candidate for governor doesn’t agree with that, and is not running for governor for kamikaze practice.

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