Tuesday, June 22, 2010

EDITORIAL>>Keet wrong again

In this season of terrible discontent, Jim Keet is still struggling to land an issue that will give his race for governor some traction. He tried and failed again yesterday and not because Gov. Mike Beebe is always on the side of the angels. Keet just picks the wrong fights, and he seemed to know it when he had a news conference to place himself squarely on the side of the people of Weiner, the little farm community in Poinsett County.

This year, it’s Weiner’s turn to have its independent school district abolished under the school-reform law of 2003. School districts that have fewer than 350 students two years in a row are deemed to be too small to have an efficient and quality educational program for kindergarten and 12 grades and must be annexed to another district that can guarantee the diverse programs that schools must offer their children.

The people of Arkansas established the 350 standard by an initiated act in 1948, and more than a thousand separate districts were abolished at once. But the act was poorly written. Districts that fell below 350 after that did not have to be abolished, and scores of schools fell below the threshold in the years afterward, although most of those were consolidated by one act or another by the legislature or the state Board of Education over the next half-century.

hen Gov. Mike Huckabee, faced with a court order to provide equal and adequate educational opportunity for every child in the state, said the solution was to abolish every school district below 1,500 students. Any district smaller than that, he concluded, wasted precious tax dollars. The legislature rebelled, but it did reinstate the 350 threshold of 1948 and this time made it permanent.

Weiner’s is a sympathetic case, but so are they all. It maintains that with 340 students it still manages to have a reasonably good educational program, although it does so with a large subsidy from the state’s taxpayers. If the school district is abolished and its high school merged with another in the vicinity, the town itself will lose its vitality and eventually dry up.

That has been the lamentation of a thousand communities. Many of us from rural townships rode the buses to big high schools to satisfy the consolidation law, and usually have been better for it.

Keet said he joined with the people of Weiner and wanted the state — Gov. Beebe or somebody — to find a way to make an exception for Weiner so that it could keep its little district and then to change the law to allow exceptions. There are no provisions for exceptions in the law. Four years ago, Asa Hutchinson ran for governor on the same platform. Something needed to be done to preserve a little rural school in Saline County. It will work just as well for Jim Keet.