Monday, July 03, 2006

SAT JULY 1ST EDITORIAL >> Ruling hurts school reform

What a quaint, and dangerous, decision that was by Pulaski Circuit Judge Jay Moody in the Paron school case. The harm to the law and, more importantly, to children may last only a year, but that is enough.

The little Paron School District west of Little Rock, 125 children strong, was one of those abolished last year under an act that consolidated districts with fewer than 350 children. They were deemed to be too small to efficiently provide a full array of secondary courses for students.

The Bryant School District, with which it was consolidated, concluded that the high school should be closed this fall and the students transported to Bryant. A few Paron residents sued to block the closing. Judge Moody ordered Bryant not to close the Paron school this fall while he conducted a full hearing on the impact of the closing.

The issue is that a few Paron students at the end of the lengthened bus route would have to ride a bus as much as an hour and a half each way to Bryant, although good roads traverse those foothills. That tentatively was conclusive for Judge Moody. He thought it might be unconstitutional to make children ride a bus for that long. He was sufficiently persuaded without a full hearing that he blocked the closing until he could get the evidence and figure it out conclusively.

No court has ever found that bus rides of any length violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. If that is unconstitutional, then the whole course of school reform for 75 years is unconstitutional. Tens of thousands — nay, hundreds of thousands — of Arkansas children have been transported to schools quite a few miles from the house, farther and in far more primitive and dangerous conditions than those that confront high school students at Paron. At least since the great consolidation drive of 1948, youngsters have been picked up at the gate of the farm or at the fork of the creek at daylight and, to their frequent delight, returned home too late to milk the cows. It was adequate recompense that they got a broader and richer education than their little communities could have provided.

In all of these small communities, there are people who think that having a local high school and basketball teams is more important than the education that is offered. Judge Moody’s order gives them hope that the little schools can be kept at any cost.

The judge said he had seen no evidence that there was any benefit to busing kids to Bryant High School. Apparently, no one had mentioned all those courses and activities that were not available at any cost at Paron.

If the order and its curious reasoning stand, it could offer a fresh remedy at law for hundreds of thousands of people who had to endure the long bus rides to school in their youth. The damages for the deprivation of their constitutional rights could be staggering.

Now there is a use for that $600 million surplus in the state treasury.