Management & Labor

The Consolidated Divide

Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas, is as amiable a fellow as most governors, and normally spends a good deal of his time traveling around the state and mixing with his constituents.
by | February 2003

Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas, is as amiable a fellow as most governors, and normally spends a good deal of his time traveling around the state and mixing with his constituents.

A few weeks ago, however, he surprised the state capitol press corps by announcing that he would be sticking close to his office in Little Rock for the time being, communicating with the public via a special new gubernatorial Web site and venturing out of town only for essential purposes. When would he start surfacing again? "When it's safe," the governor said.

You'd think for sure that Huckabee had come down with a case of Al Qaeda jitters, but that's not the problem at all. It's the citizens of his own state who are making him nervous. Mike Huckabee has proposed a massive consolidation plan for the Arkansas public schools, one that would eliminate every local school district with fewer than 1,500 students--which means two-thirds of the ones that exist right now would have to go. He's not sure what some of the angry voters might say or do if he turns up among them.

To be fair, Huckabee is not talking about physical violence. He's talking about the verbal abuse that is all but guaranteed any governor who advocates closing schools. Huckabee's predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, was booed at one appearance after another when he tried to sell a similar scheme in 1995. "I'm not looking for ways to create venues of screaming matches," Huckabee argues.

But to expect anything less dramatic than a screaming match would be unrealistic. Southern politics has a whole list of "third rail" issues, subjects so controversial that any officeholder who discusses them risks early retirement. Gun control is one of them. Messing with the Confederate flag can be another, as Georgia's Roy Barnes learned to his surprise last fall. But school consolidation is right up there on the list. A governor who proposes it is tampering with the deepest strains of small-town identity that move decent citizens to fear and anger.

Mike Huckabee knew all this, and so he didn't take on a consolidation fight with any enthusiasm. Just last fall, as he campaigned for reelection, Huckabee proclaimed that "arbitrary consolidation based on sheer numbers will not necessarily lead to more efficiency." But on November 21, the Arkansas Supreme Court changed the environment. It upheld a lower court ruling that Arkansas' school finance system was neither adequate to meet pupils' needs nor fair in the way it distributed its $1.7 billion. The court gave state officials until January 2004 to do something about this. It didn't demand consolidation, but since voters have shown no willingness to raise taxes, that quickly came to be the first option on the table.

And Huckabee, notwithstanding his earlier skepticism, began to talk of consolidation as if he were actually warming to the idea. "We have a chance to do it right," he said in a newspaper article, presumably sent from a secure location. "The question is whether we have the political courage."

To most of rural Arkansas, however, that isn't the question at all. The question is how eliminating schools came to be the default idea. Almost every week, hundreds of protesters from the sparsely populated towns of northwestern Arkansas have been massing on the steps of the capitol building, chanting "Huck No, We Won't Go." They echo the sentiments that school consolidation opponents have been expressing for decades, in Arkansas and all over rural America: The local school is often the last remaining community institution and rallying point for local identity. When it goes, the community goes along with it. One of the leading opponents of Huckabee's plan, state Senator Gene Jeffress, portrays the consolidationists as "people from urban communities who have little or no concept of rural life."

Since the governor isn't getting out much these days, the protesters have to settle for reading his responses on the op-ed page, watching him on TV or going to his new Web site, which features a choice between audio and streaming video. What they hear from Huckabee is that his plan is the pedagogical equivalent of Wal-Mart: "the widest array of courses for the best price." Wasteful bureaucratic duplication will be stamped out, elementary schools will be protected and rural community life will remain intact.

It's true that the plan doesn't talk about closing schools, just eliminating districts. Two small districts could merge and keep all of the individual schools operating, as long as the new combined district met specified standards of size and curriculum.

But if I were a parent in a little town in northwest Arkansas, where the high school graduates 10 kids a year, that pledge wouldn't be very reassuring to me. The one safeguard a tiny district has is the existence of its own administrative structure that would no more consider closing a school than it would entertain giving up football. Once that administrative apparatus merges into a larger regional one, there's nothing to stop the combined school board from shutting the smaller faculties down. And the citizens of small-town Arkansas understand this, no matter what the governor's streaming video tries to tell them.

You may find Arkansas' 310 districts for 450,000 pupils to be a little excessive, but the state is a long way from being the prizewinner. Oklahoma, which ranks 27th in the country in population, ranks ninth in number of districts, with 544. Nebraska, 38th in population, ranks sixth, with more districts than Florida, Michigan or Pennsylvania.

Indeed, many predominantly rural states have been arguing about school districts and school consolidation for the past century or more. When Oklahoma became a state, it had almost 6,000 districts, on the presumption that no child should have to walk more than a mile and a half to school every day. Over the years, the realities of meager population growth--or actual decline--have, in fact, forced significant consolidation on virtually every corner of rural America.

In the past decade, however, realizing the sensitivity of the subject, most states have decided to live with the systems they have. Some have labored to shore up small and inefficient districts: South Dakota, for example, passed a "small school bonus" law in 1995, providing extra funds for districts with fewer than 600 pupils. That law has survived several repeal efforts.

Now, however, the issue is returning in most of the states where the number of school districts is disproportionately high. The reasons for this are easy enough to figure out: One is that local school systems are under far more financial pressures than they were just a couple of years ago. These pressures are magnified in any state where, as in Arkansas, courts have ruled that the current funding mechanisms are unconstitutional. And they are complicated by the federal government's "No Child Left Behind Act," which forces expensive new testing procedures on every school system while offering only a small fraction of the money it will take to implement those procedures.

So it is perhaps understandable that even a governor as politically prudent as Mike Huckabee would decide that merging school districts and ultimately closing some schools is the only way to proceed. But that still begs one important question: Does it really serve the purpose of improving education?

Elite opinion clearly thinks so. The media and business establishment virtually everywhere takes it as a given that a consolidated high school with an Olympic-size swimming pool and electives in Japanese can prepare kids for adult life better than a two-room school where the principal is also the music teacher and the football coach. If schools were consolidated, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorialized this month, in a rather cloying "open letter" to the state's children, "students in small schools that aren't doing very well could get the chance to go to a bigger school and take different, interesting classes from great teachers. It's all part of making Arkansas' schools better, so young people like you can learn more and make Arkansas better."

Unfortunately, there's no clear-cut evidence that this is true. There is research concluding that big schools are better, and research concluding the opposite. One ambitious study conducted three years ago by professors at Ohio University and Marshall University found that small schools served to mitigate the effects of poverty more effectively than larger ones in a diverse array of districts scattered across rural Appalachia. Of course, no one denies that a school can be too small and ill equipped to meet the needs of its children. But there is no consensus about what the threshold for quality education might be. For a newspaper to assure children in Mister Rogers-like tones that school consolidation will bring them more rewarding lives is to assume something that nobody in the world knows.

On the other hand, there are a few things about consolidation that virtually everyone knows. When two small schools merge into a larger one, the result is fewer opportunities: fewer jobs for teachers who are members of each community, fewer places on sports teams, fewer positions in the band, fewer chances for parents to join with neighbors in the local PTA. And as often as not, when a small town loses its elementary school, the town itself gradually dries up. The protesters are right about this. Even the enthusiasts for consolidation have to concede it.

This is not to say that no schools should ever be closed, or that no districts should ever be eliminated, or that budget pressures or court decisions don't sometimes make painful decisions necessary. But if consolidation is an austerity program, it should be sold that way--not as an opportunity to enter a brave new world of big gymnasiums and advanced placement.

The citizens of small-town Arkansas who have been converging on the state capitol deserve credit for having a little common sense. They understand that they are being asked to give up something tangible and important--the stability of the communities they live in--for the dubious privilege of submitting to reforms that may or may not help them in the long run.

Unfortunately, this is what education reformers like to do in America: They like to ask ordinary people to trade security for uncertainty. It's no surprise that people generally resist. If I were in their place, I would resist, too.

All of this might be something for Mike Huckabee to think about as he sticks close to the office these next few weeks.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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