Gov. Mike Huckabee's support of school consolidation has drawn criticism from rural parents, educators and state legislators all over the state this spring. Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller talked about the governor's position and the economic implications March 13 at the North Recreation Center in Cherokee Village.
Rockefeller said the governor is a visionary whose objective is to create a higher educational standard in the state. He said Arkansas consistently ranks at the bottom in education and income on national surveys and the dilapidated state of the educational system is the primary reason.
Act 60, passed by the state Legislature in January, requires any school district with 350 students or fewer to administratively consolidate with another school district. Area school administrators, Evening Shade's Superintendent Karen Smith and Mount Pleasant's Superintendent Howard Lamb, said they expect the Legislature to raise the number again.
Rockefeller said smaller schools have small tax bases and are unable to offer as many educational opportunities as larger schools.
The lieutenant governor said he and the governor understand the concerns of parents and administrators from schools facing consolidation, but it's time to face facts. He said studies show 56 percent of the adult population in the state can't read above an eighth grade level and 22 percent of the adult population can't read above a fifth grade level.
He said the lack of a strong educational system hurts the state economically. He said, "We have to create an educational system that will allow our students to be globally competitive. We need to foster an academic atmosphere where students can readily understand abstract and complex thoughts."
Several large companies around the world have looked into expanding operations in the state, Rockefeller said. The state receives high marks for its natural beauty and tax incentives but it grades poorly when companies look at the education level of the local population. The state has lost several development and economic opportunities because of the poor quality of education, he said.
The state's educational problems won't be solved by consolidation. He said when schools are properly funded and consolidation is complete, lawmakers need to focus on teacher standards and curriculum.
Rockefeller said parents in rural school districts need to be less concerned about their past ties to a particular school and should focus their concern on their children receiving a high quality education.
Rockefeller said he understands the unique small town atmosphere fostered in the state's rural schools. He said he graduated from a small school and he knows how important they are for the communities they serve.
"We live in the 21st century. The world is ruthlessly competitive and our kids need to be able to face the challenges in this highly competitive world," he said.