Long bus rides, boarded-up schools and withering small towns: This is the legacy of school consolidation in Arkansas, rural residents say.
More than half a century after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, virtually every state in the nation continues to struggle with how to fund education equitably.
The Arkansas Supreme Court found the state’s school funding system was inequitable and unconstitutional in a series of rulings stemming from the historic Lake View v. Huckabee case. The state Legislature responded with a school reform law known as Act 60. Under Act 60, which went into effect in 2004, any school district in which enrollment drops below 350 students for two consecutive years must merge with another district.
Act 60 was touted as a way to fund education more fairly by consolidating resources and creating economies of scale. But critics say the one-size-fits-all reform has made things worse for small-town residents. When local schools shut down, communities lose not only jobs but a crucial center of civic life.
In the decade since Act 60 went into effect, 98 schools have closed, nearly all in rural areas. The closures set back rural economies already struggling to recover jobs lost during the Great Recession. They have forced rural students to make long commutes and made it harder for them and their parents to participate in school activities. In at least one instance, consolidation has re-segregated a community where the local school was once a model of racial harmony.
Now, advocates and parents are pushing back in a grassroots movement to protect the small schools that serve as an anchor for rural communities. With a new governor in office and growing support for preserving local schools, advocates for small schools are hopeful that they will be able to save what they say is a valued rural institution—and, by extension, a small-town way of life.
Rural Community Alliance (RCA), a statewide network that supports community revitalization, is urging state legislators to pass a bill that would give under-enrolled schools the opportunity to apply for an annual waiver from the 350-student requirement if the district is meeting standards and is not on fiscal or academic distress. RCA is also sponsoring a petition to repeal Act 60. More than 2,600 Arkansas residents have signed it.
“We want relief,” said Renee Carr, RCA’s executive director, “in whatever form we can get it.”
Compounding Rural Poverty
In Arkansas, “rural” is practically synonymous with “poor.” Of the 36 counties in the state in which more than one in three children live in poverty, 33 are rural. Eleven rural counties have a child poverty rate higher than 40 percent. School closures, opponents say, only compound an already serious problem.
Rural areas were hit hard by the Great Recession and are still struggling to recover lost jobs. But when schools close, jobs go with them, with ripple effects extending far beyond the campus.
Parents tend to shop and do business near where their kids go to school. When a small school closes, the center of gravity shifts.
That’s what happened after the Leslie School District consolidated with the Marshall School District, creating the Searcy County School District. In 2007, Leslie High School closed, sending students eight miles away to Marshall High School.
“The stream of people that came into Leslie just dwindled,” said Sandra Knapp, a longtime Leslie teacher who graduated from the district’s now-closed high school herself. The town lost its only bank. Business dropped at locally-owned shops like Lewis Grocery, which Joe Lewis and his family have operated for nearly 40 years.
When schools shut down, it can push communities apart. Students wake up early to travel as much as an hour to and from distant schools.
One bus driver described kindergarteners getting on the bus with their blankets so they could catch up on lost sleep during the long ride. It becomes difficult for older kids to participate in after school events, and for parents to be involved with the school.
The closure of small rural schools can cost communities an important piece of social infrastructure. Small towns often lack public meeting space, so the schools become de facto town halls. They are also a source of community identity and pride.
“This is our rallying point,” parent Danielle Brown said of her town’s single, K-12 campus, which has been at risk of closure due to dropping enrollment. “This is where we all come together.”
Reminders of rural schools’ demise are scattered all over the state.
“You can drive through Arkansas and see the visible effects of Act 60,” Brown said, “vandalized buildings, schools with roofs falling through.”
Saving Kirby School
The tiny town of Kirby faced a big problem in 2010, when a nearby lumber mill closed. Families began leaving the area in search of work. Over the next two years, enrollment in the Kirby School District dropped from 450 students to 356.
Fearing the district’s single K-12 campus would be forced to close, community members launched an all-out effort to recruit new students. Kirby residents reached out to parents who home-schooled their kids, urging them to give their local school a try.
Arkansas law allows families to choose the schools they want their children to attend, so local business leaders made home visits to families in other districts, touting Kirby’s friendly atmosphere and well-supported basketball team.
A group of Kirby families even signed up to host international exchange students, and 17 young people from around the world became Kirby High School Trojans. Together, these efforts brought enrollment back above the 350 mark.
Brown, whose family hosted a student from Mexico and another from Brazil, is proud of the way the community rallied. But her own children are young, and she worries about the future. Hosting international students was a wonderful experience, she said, but it’s not a sustainable solution.
That is why Brown and other Kirby residents are widening the scope of their organizing efforts to include economic development and affordable housing. By drawing new families to the town of 800, they hope to bring enrollment up for good.
Otherwise, Brown worries, “We’re going to battle this every year.”
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a statewide organization that works for social and economic justice, points out that the state calculates the funding it gives to districts on a per-student basis.
Operating a district comes with a certain level of overhead costs, and as the number of students in a district dwindles, meeting those costs becomes increasingly difficult. He wonders what corners small districts might be forced to cut in order to stay off the state’s “fiscal distress” list.
“What are they doing?” Kopsky said. “Paying their teachers less?”
Rural Community Alliance’s Carr challenges the assertion that small schools are doomed to serve students poorly. Only two of the 28 traditional public schools with enrollment of 450 or less are on the state’s “academic distress” list, she pointed out.
Carr is not reassured by the argument that school consolidation helps balance district budgets by creating economies of scale. In practice, she said, consolidation balances budgets on the backs of the state’s low-income rural students.
“You’ve got to take into consideration how far children have to ride bus in order to make that scale,” Carr said. “We have to make some concessions [to the fact that] that we are a rural state.”
Long bus rides mean more than sleepy students and inconvenienced parents, researchers point out. According to Mara Casey Teiken, assistant professor of education at Bates College, increased transportation costs can eat up whatever gains were made by closing schools in the first place, leaving scant evidence that school consolidation ends up saving money.
Divided in Delight
Delight, in southwest Arkansas, offers another example of how the law of unintended consequences can undermine even the most well-intentioned reform.
Arkansas is a racially-segregated state, full of small towns that are largely Black or White. Until recently, the Delight School District was a shining exception.
When Teiken began visiting the area in 2007, Delight’s single K-12 campus was roughly 60 percent White and 30 percent Black (the remaining 10 percent were international students).
In 2010, the Delight School District consolidated due to declining enrollment. Most of the district’s White high school students were assigned to a district that was nearly all White. Black high school students went to a district with a much higher Black population, according to Teiken’s 2014 book, “Why Rural Schools Matter.”
Part of this, Teiken said, was the result of self-selection that occurred as families, anticipating consolidation, moved their students to other schools.
Regardless, the consolidation of Delight School District under Act 60, Teiken writes, illustrates how a supposedly race-blind policy can have racialized consequences: “A desegregated district vanished, the lines of race redrawn.”
Laura Wofford, a Delight parent, said the closure of the high school undermined years of progress toward integration. “It took us way back,” Wofford said. “It caused a division in the community.”
Wofford, who is White, said Delight schools had been an example of racial harmony.
“We had Black people and White people who went to the same school together. They shared experiences. They didn’t keep separated,” she said.
It’s been more than four years since the Delight School District consolidated. Wofford’s son is now 17 years old. So, he drives the 12 miles to school in Murfreesboro, rather than take an hour-long bus ride.
Even though it won’t help her family, Wofford said she’d still like to see Act 60 overturned.
“The only reason they closed our school is we dropped below a number,” said Wofford, “a number that they threw out.”
Amy Roe is the reporter for Equal Voice News. The top image, made by Amy Rothe, shows the site of the Delaplaine School District, which is located in northeast Arkansas. It merged with another district because of low enrollment and closed in 2007. The state sold the campus to a farmer, who now uses it for storage. This story has been revised since it was first posted.
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