Wednesday, October 12, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Let us praise the masters

Of all the hysterical reactions to the scolding of the legislature by the special masters in the Lake View school case, Gov. Huckabee’s was the most incomprehensible. Masters Bradley D. Jesson and David Newbern embraced the governor’s old passion for school consolidation and made the case for him better than did his own administration back in 2003 and 2004.

But Huckabee was on the radio and in the prints this week condemning the masters and the Supreme Court justices who appointed them with stronger words than we have heard him use on anybody but environmentalists, whom he was fond of calling “wackos.”

In their first incarnation after the 2004 special session on the schools, the same two men reported favorably to the Supreme Court on the work of the legislature, including passage of a law consolidating some 50 school districts with the smallest enrollments. Huckabee considered the consolidation weak and hardly worth the effort. He had sought wholesale consolidation of schools to bring about the efficiency that the state Constitution seems to prescribe. The Constitution says the state must provide an equal education for all students, one that is suitable and efficient. Huckabee might indeed have had some reason to expect that the court would define efficiency in a way that would support his stand for comprehensive consolidation.

Neither the masters nor the Supreme Court, however, did that. The Court almost ignored the consolidation issue and Huckabee did not hide his disappointment. Nevertheless, when the Supreme Court in the late spring reopened the school case on the motion of some 40 school districts and appointed Jesson and Newbern as the fact-finders again to analyze what the legislature had accomplished toward making the schools constitutional, Huckabee praised Jesson and Newbern as men whose whole lives “scream integrity and honor.”

Four months later, their iniquities and treacheries know no bounds. He considered the masters’ report a personal attack on him and his leadership. It makes you wonder who told the governor what the masters wrote. They barely mentioned Huckabee.

He was most incensed about what they said about school consolidation.
Here is how they broached the subject very briefly at the end of the report, and Huckabee ought to take their words and renew his crusade:

“Gov. Huckabee, through counsel, was a participant in the hearings in 2004 as an advocate of achieving greater efficiency through consolidation. The governor is no longer actively participating in this case.” [That is undeniably true. This time, he did not have his own counsel and contributed nothing to the hearings.]
The masters point out that Huckabee’s chief fiscal man, Richard Weiss, testified at the hearings that serious inefficiencies continue to occur because the state has more than 250 school districts. Despite Weiss’ testimony and Huckabee’s earlier strong arguments on that issue, the masters said, the legislature this year ignored consolidation and its potential efficiencies.

“Apparently,” they continued “there is a new plan for district consolidation by default that results in even less efficiency.”

Indeed, the state does now have an operating consolidation plan, and it does, as the masters argue, produce even greater inefficiencies along with abiding harm to students. The masters make the case for the kind of formulaic consolidation that Huckabee sought in 2003 and 2004. He ought to praise them, not vilify them.
In the Pulaski County School District we are witnessing the insidious effects of that plan.
Under the stealth consolidation plan, school districts can fall into “fiscal distress,” “academic distress” or even “facilities distress” if their fund balances plummet, their pupil test scores do not measure up or they fail to modernize their facilities. The period takes several years but ultimately the downward spiral leads to a takeover by the state Education Department and then potentially forcible consolidation.
The masters documented how many school districts, owing to the perversity of state laws and their own peculiar geographical and wealth situations, do not have the money to maintain their academic programs or their facilities in repair so they exhaust their reserves. Sixteen school districts were in fiscal distress this summer, 66 were on academic probation and headed for academic distress. The state has not got around yet to determining what will constitute facilities distress.

Newbern and Jesson then got to the heart of the matter:
“The problem with the approach to consolidation as the result of failure is that it ignores what is happening in the classrooms during the years leading up to one or more of the distress conditions and the ensuing struggle to cope with it the local level.”

For all the children in those classrooms, it is a cruel thing and as patent a violation of the equal, suitable and efficient doctrine as anything you will find in the schools. Instead of bashing them, Gov. Huckabee should summon Jesson and Newbern to the Capitol and give them one of those certificates of merit, or whatever he calls it, that he gives to people whose deeds suit him.