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What Weiner lacks

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Weiner hasn't changed much at all in the past two decades.

The Riceland dryers are still there, belching out fine dust that irritates some people but smells like money to most. Penny's Place still opens early and closes late, and the John Deere dealership still welcomes folks to town, though now it does so as "Greenway" instead of "Norsworthy and Wofford" as it did for a generation.

In the heart of town, past the co-op, is the school. The high school's exterior hasn't changed much, though subtle evolutions are apparent. The elementary school, a wonder of modern design when it opened in the early 1970s, looks much smaller now than it did to a newly minted fourth-grader. Of course, the gymnasium is still there, and in its rafters hang many banners recognizing successful basketball seasons.

Patrons won't hang any more banners or listen to future valedictory speeches or buy holiday cases of oranges during the FFA fruit sale. The district will cease to exist, another victim of consolidation. Eventually, many of the young people will attend school in Harrisburg.

More than a few patrons — relatively speaking, of course — don't like that one bit. Consolidation, that is. Parents are still fighting the merger of the school district with Harrisburg and last week picked up a support from the Republican candidate for governor.

But closing Weiner School District isn't about the school's patrons or its students. It isn't even about the demise of the mighty, mighty Cardinals.

It's about young people all across Arkansas who deserve the best shot they can get at a better life.

Advocates for keeping the school point to good test scores and the fine upstanding youth who represent the town and the school. They have every right to be proud.

But those above-average young people, and those who came before them, didn't all migrate in from Lake Woebegone. They do well on tests because their parents encourage them. They succeed in college because they work hard to prepare. They get ahead despite the shortcomings inherent in their school system. They are the lucky ones.

Compare the young people in Weiner to young people in areas where the support structure isn't as healthy. Look at test scores in small districts that don't have as strong a fiscal base. Note the career prospects for young people in other tiny little towns from Eudora to Armorel.

Only then is it possible to understand the stakes of the consolidation debate.

The state of Arkansas has a constitutional mandate to provide an adequate and equitable public school system. In recent years, the General Assembly, goaded for a number of years by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, has poured tens of millions of additional dollars into schools, helping improve their adequacy.

However, to the second point — equity — much remains undone.

There can be no serious argument that the academic opportunities at larger districts dwarf those of small districts, such as Weiner. Examine the course catalogue of Little Rock Central or Fort Smith Northside or Jonesboro or Conway. Note the dozens and dozens of course offerings, far above the mandated floor of 38 basic courses. Small districts can scarcely offer the basics, let alone a richer curriculum featuring myriad advanced placement courses and specialized content.

How is a student at a small district receiving the same academic opportunity as a student at a larger district? She's not. Period.

Therein lies the constitutional problem of a system of public school haves and have-nots.

Consolidating schools isn't an exercise in punishing small districts that are doing an OK job by some measurements. It is a process to ensure that every boy and girl in this state has access to a comparable educational experience. What those students choose to do with the opportunity is up to them, but the state must give them an equal chance.

Until every child in every public school in this state has the same opportunity, the system is failing.

We're allowing it to.

Rick Fahr, publisher of the Conway Log Cabin Democrat, is a 1988 graduate of Weiner High School.

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