Small Arkansas Schools Pay Big Price for New Money

The tiny Lake View school district in southeast Arkansas has won its three-year old school finance lawsuit against the state sort of.

But don't expect celebrations at Lake View's two schools anytime soon, because the district no longer exists. It has been merged with a larger school district, and its two school buildings may be closed in the fall of 2005.

Lake View, which enrolls 162 students, is one of 57 small Arkansas school districts eliminated in a deal between Governor Mike Huckabee (R) and the General Assembly to restructure the state's school finance system, which was ruled unconstitutional in 2002.

Last month, the Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4 to 3 to approve the new funding measures, which include an extra $370 million annually for public schools, a 5 percent hike in average teacher salaries and a mandate to make school funding the state's top budget priority.

The decision followed the recommendation of two appointed special masters, and makes Arkansas one of few states to resolve a school finance lawsuit anytime recently about half of the states are now embroiled in years-old school finance lawsuits. But the Arkansas school consolidations remain highly controversial. A federal lawsuit has already been filed challenging the mergers and charging that the school finance system is still unfair.

"The reason we had to do some consolidation ... was so that the system would actually be affordable," Huckabee told Stateline.org.

During a two-month long special session that ended in February, Huckabee agreed to hike sales and service taxes to increase school spending if legislators downsized districts with fewer than 1,500 students. Legislators, loathe shutting local schoolhouses, passed a bill consolidating districts with fewer than 350 students. Huckabee allowed that legislation to became law without his signature.

The state constitution guarantees an efficient school system, Huckabee said. And smaller school districts do not have the money to provide all of the advanced classes and equipment that students need in an era that demands high academic achievement, he said.

So far, the Arkansas Education Association supports the new finance and consolidation plans, although the state provided less than half the $800 million increase recommended by a legislative cost study and nixed a 10 percent across-the-board hike in teacher pay.

"We were a little disappointed at first. We wanted the whole cake," said Sid Johnson, president of the teachers union.

Merging school districts means some teachers will lose jobs, but it will serve a greater educational good because more students will have access to the full curriculum, he said. "Down deep somewhere, you can't just say that schools exist for the staff," he said.

But Martin Schoppmeyer, professor emeritus of education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said that consolidation runs counter to educational research that children learn better in smaller schools.

And the consolidation bill is considered Lake View's punishment for its lengthy legal challenge, he said.

Marty Strange, policy analyst with the Rural School and Community Trust, said that his organization had identified five small Arkansas high schools that performed above state standards. Under the new consolidation plan, four of those schools may be closed in 2005, he said.

Schoppmeyer added that large inequities will remain in the new school finance system, because wealthy jurisdictions are still able to boost their own taxes for more school money. Low-income areas can raise taxes all they want, but won't be able to collect as much money, he said.

Even extra money promised for low-income students will be diluted by consolidation, Schoppmeyer said. For example, the Lake View district would have qualified for an extra $1,440 per poor child, because the poverty rate in the district was at least 90 percent. But low-income students will make up a smaller percentage of the merged district and schools will get, at most, an extra $960 per student, he said.

Huckabee acknowledged that even the state Supreme Court wasn't entirely happy with the state's new plans. "I think they were just tired of dealing with it," he said.

And with the ink barely dry on the state Supreme Court decision, several small districts have already tried to halt the consolidations in federal court. A U.S. District Court judge denied the schools' initial request for a temporary restraining order.

Tags: Education