Friday, May 21, 2004

Thoughts on Education (in Abstract, and in Arkansas)

It's been a productive few weeks. I thought I'd be posting somewhat regularly on my book and some reading I'm doing in relation to it, but that hasn't happened yet. Perhaps in June. In the meantime, for a variety of reasons I've been thinking a lot about education this past week, and though it doesn't have anything to do with any of my current projects, I thought I'd put down some of my (rambling, lengthy) thoughts this Friday afternoon, if only to reward the handful of people who continue to come by (don't worry; the summer won't last forever).

Megan, our seven-year-old, finished up her second grade year at Hillcrest Elementary on Thursday. She had a good year, though not as good as she did in kindergarten and first grade; Megan is a sensitive girl, and she was made uncomfortable by the way in which her talents and test scores were highlighted by her teacher and used (mostly implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, to our chagrin) as a benchmark to critique the performance of her classmates. However, given the demographics of the school, that may have been inevitable. Hillcrest, which is in the Jonesboro School District here in Jonesboro, AR, is the largest in the area, the wealthiest (that is, it receives the most city and state money), but also serves the poorest segment of students in the city; for this reason (among others) it has a bad reputation among many locals, and has suffered a great deal from white flight over past few decades. Depending on what you're looking for in a school, though, that's not necessarily a negative; one fine member of our church--a native of the area, a blue-collar fellow and hardly any sort of guilt-ridden liberal intellectual--told us over dinner one evening that he and his wife had chosen to live within the Jonesboro School District specifically because they considered the implicit racism exhibited in other, outlying districts to be intolerable. A subjective judgment, to be sure. And not the sort of thing which ought to be the sole determining factor when deciding where to educate one's children; standing on principle is and should be easily outweighed by concerns over safety and adequate instruction. Fortunately, we haven't been faced with such a stark choice yet. And in the meantime I do take some satisfaction from the fact that Megan's best friend from school, the one she spends the most time with and talked about homework with and whom she visits and invites over regularly, is Sediah, a quite poor black girl from a crowded, welfare-dependent home. It would be foolish to try to articulate the social worth of such a friendship in accordance with some rigorous egalitarian scheme...but that does not mean I cannot recognize it as a good thing, a thing that, in too many places at least, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much of as one might think there ought to be.

The arguments and assumptions which surround the local debate over Jonesboro School District--a large district with a big central high school, a great number and variety of classes, programs and activities, but of course also more discipline problems, more poor kids and more bureaucracy--are a microcosm of the debates which have characterized public education in Arkansas over the last few years. Big schools vs. little schools, increased opportunity vs. intimate involvement--it's a complicated and divisive set of arguments, one which just about every school system has struggled with at one point or another. Just this week, at least one strand of those debates in Arkansas appeared to come full circle: Lake View School District--a tiny (about 160 students total), rural, all-black school district in Arkansas's southeastern Delta region--was instructed by a state board that it would have to consolidate with a neighboring (mostly white) school district. What is ironic about this is that it was Lake View School District's complaints about unequal school funding, complaints which ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits (lasting over a decade) that challenged the constitutionality of Arkansas's school funding arrangement in the first place...a challenge that eventually led the state to a set of decisions which included dissolving (excuse me, "consolidating") Lake View.

School consolidation has been on everyone's mind here in Arkansas ever since Governor Mike Huckabee recanted his opposition to such after his election in 2002. What changed his mind was the threat that the Arkansas Supreme Court would take over the state's schools, unless something was done to satisfy, in their eyes, the education clause in the Arkansas Constitution which states that "the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." Huckabee argued that district consolidation had to be part of any reform proposal: Arkansas simply did not have the funds or tax base to make up the inequalities directly, and fewer school districts (Arkansas has over three hundred) with a consequently larger pool of teachers to share would, he claimed, be able to provide a greater variety of classes to more students (thus presumably somewhat equalizing the great disparity in educational resources around the state) at little extra cost. Huckabee originally suggested that districts with under 1,500 students total be consolidated--which would have affected nearly three-quarters of Arkansas's school districts, thought he also proposed exceptions for especially isolated or highly performing school districts. Predictably, this did not go over well with the state legislature. But ultimately, a bill was passed which mandated the "administrative consolidation" of districts with under 350 students. Huckabee didn't like it, but it was something. The public was divided about it, but no other solution carried much support either. And anyway you look at it, Lake View itself--a Reconstruction-era, former sharecropping community that has suffered from rural poverty for decades--simply couldn't avoid the chopping block.

There are so many things that could be said about this dilemma--about the profound injustice involved in tying so much of school funding to the local and state tax base, about the burdens of Bush's spectacularly under-funded No Child Left Behind mandates, about the mania for testing and standards and how that undermines clear thinking about what different schools in diverse socio-economic settings can or ought to be expected to offer their students. To me, the most interesting issue is how one ought to conceive community obligations when small localities confront a larger one. Some communitarians defended rural school district advocates; I couldn't, simply because I think the civic project of education can properly (not to mention pragmatically) be understood as a communal concern for the whole state as well. But that doesn't make hard choices any easier. It would have been nice if the legal juggernaut which Lake View had put in motion had resulted in legislation which attempted to engage with some sort of deeper, more fundamental and better reform. There are all sorts of things I would like to see explored: perhaps reforms along lines suggested by Matthew Miller (see here and here, where he talks about ways in which vouchers could be distributed more equitably and restrictions on teachers could be loosened, thereby making them both more responsible and accountable), or Harry Brighouse (who in his book here talks about turning school choice into a tool for those who care about the autonomy of students), or any the many advocates of charter schools (here, for example) despite their admittedly profound disagreements with one another. But that wasn't to be. What we did have was an admirable resistance by the governor to the lottery-money-for-education delusion which has suckered so many state governments, and thus a need to raise whatever additional money could be found through a sales tax, and then push for some boundary restructuring in the hopes that what money there was could be distributed with slightly fewer inequities than before. This is the course Governor Huckabee pursued, sometimes honestly and sometimes not, but in the end it was one I supported. Not without discomfort: another member of our church is a school teacher in a district which serves a small farming community 30 miles west of here; his district is being consolidated, the local parents are devastated, and he will likely have to look for a new job. He's a wonderful teacher, and deserves better. But no comprehensive reform could ever make things easy for him, or for the people of Lake View, or for anyone who hopes to make public education work. It's enough to make you despair (which is part of the explanation for why so many of my siblings home school their children). But then I look at Megan, and her friends, and I think: there's too much good here to not keep trying to find some way to hold on to the principle of the thing.

Anyway, summer's here. Onward and upward into the third grade, next year.