Tuesday, February 09, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Standing up for kids

The state education agency and its governing board have not always been tribunes for the children in Arkansas’ public schools. Sometimes the concerns of vested groups — administrators, local politicians and business interests — have come first.

But the Board of Education chose the children Monday.

It did not let three school districts off the hook for not providing educational programs that the state considered absolutely minimal. The three little school districts will have to be annexed to school districts that can meet the students’ needs. The superintendents, their attorneys, a few school board members and local politicians were there to plead for the schools to be let alone to do their thing. Not one state Board member voted to let them have their way. That is encouraging for the future. It was one of the first tests of how the state will enforce the school reforms enacted by the legislature in 2005 and 2007.

Two of the school districts — Weiner and Delight — proposed a solution to the children’s problems that was ridiculous, but that has not always deterred the state agency. Delight in the southwestern corner of the state and Weiner in the northeastern corner, both smaller than the 350 enrollment that the state determined was essential to provide the absolutely minimum curriculum, proposed that they consolidate into one district. Delight and Weiner are 200 miles apart. You see, the law failed to specify that a school district’s service areas had to be contiguous or even nearly contiguous.

Delight is in the piney hills of Pike County, Weiner in the farming expanse of the Mississippi Delta just south of Jonesboro.

They have only two things in common: Their administrators want to keep their jobs, and the schools have demonstrated that they cannot provide the courses students need in the 21st century. On paper, the consolidated district, connected by 200 miles of blacktop, would meet the strictures of the law (it would have had a blended school board) but for the children nothing much would have changed. Now each of the schools will be annexed by solidly performing school districts a few miles away.

This should not affect either community’s singular traditions. Delight was the boyhood home of the country crooner Glen Campbell, Weiner the home of the state’s purest populist candidate for governor, Dave Cox. They can still revel in those distinctions.

The Twin Rivers School District presented the board with a similar predicament: a large rural area so sparsely populated that it seemed unable to efficiently provide a good school program. A large measure of ineptitude, or perhaps lassitude, made it worse. The high schools were not offering the minimum of 38 courses youngsters need for their graduates to be recognized, and at least one teacher was unqualified. The superintendent said a lot of the problem was his fault and he tendered his resignation so that the state would preserve the school district. The district rambles around parts of three counties near the Missouri border, and the superintendent said that made it hard to administer.

The Board of Education apparently thought the problems were deeper than that. The school district has been on probation for two years for failing to meet accreditation standards. The state board voted to take over the school district, abolish the school board (its members seemed to be unaware of the problems) and appoint an administrator to get the schools back in compliance.

It was a good day’s work, and a good sign for children. The state Board of Education is, well, for education. —E.D.