Citizens from Fulton, Stone, Sharp, Izard, Cleburne and Independence counties came to voice their opinions on education and school consolidation at a forum July 29 in the John E. Miller Auditorium at Ozarka College in Melbourne. The meeting was one of many around the state organized by Arkansans for Excellence in Education.
"We're here tonight to talk about what we want education to be," said Dr. Dennis Martin.
Karen Smith, Evening Shade School District superintendent, said, "Patrons and parents deserve to have a forum where they can speak about what they want in education. If you're a patron of the district you should have a say about what education is."
"The whole goal of this is for the legislation to be more than just how superintendents feel," Martin said. "The overall goal tonight is to come up with a solution we can all agree upon about what education should be."
The attendees broke into four groups to discuss the following five questions:
1. The Lakeview decision stated that the state education system is not providing an "adequate" education to our children. What are your thoughts on what an adequate education is?
2. The Lakeview decision stated that the state's funding formula is inequitable. What are some ideas for providing an equitable funding system for the state and raising revenues to fund it?
3. Another point from the Lakeview decision was the discrepancy of course offerings across the state. What are your thoughts on the rich curriculum (60 units; currently 38 units are required) proposed by some?
4. There have been some bills proposed that consolidate schools based on numbers to address the Lakeview decision; however, the Lakeview decision didn't mention consolidation. What are your thoughts about consolidating schools?
5. What do you want to see education look like in the future?
The discussion remained calm until the issue of consolidation came up.
"I grew up in a small community, and it was surrounded by other small communities," a Batesville teacher said. "All of those communities had schools. They consolidated. Those communities died. Communities die. Get over it."
After the groups discussed all the questions, Bernadette Devone, a representative from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and an organizer of the event, gave background on the panel.
"The panel has been around about 40 years," she said. "The panel is here to assist you in any way we can. Education is very important in Arkansas. We want to make sure the students in Arkansas get the best education possible. This is a discussion about what is good for Arkansas. The consolidation issue has taken the focus off what is really important."
Participants agreed that Arkansas schools should make kids proficient in skills and better educate parents to support the schools. They also agreed that while everyone needs to be prepared for the future, not every student should go to college.
Arkansas schools need to keep goals in mind and stress basic skills in the elementary grades, participants agreed, and schools should look at more than test scores because some children do not test well and tests are not always representative of how much students have learned.
Martin said, "We need responsible citizens. If they've learned skills to help them be prepared for life after they graduate high school, schools have done their job."
The second topic was better funding for education. Some attending said big business needs to pay its fair share of taxes for education. But others said the state needs to be realistic about what is affordable; it may be necessary to raise taxes for businesses, but not so much that it hurts the businesses.
Some said education should comprise 50 percent of the state's budget, as it has in the past.
"Basically, we need to take a realistic look at what we can afford then take (a) hard look at what we can do," Martin said. "Every school sends 25 mills to Little Rock. They send it back redistributed based on how many kids you have because a mill in Rural Special is not equal to a mill in Little Rock, Rogers or Springdale."
The third discussion answered what should be done about a rich curriculum. The group believed schools need to do a better job with existing courses before expanding the number of required units.
Then came the touchy issue: consolidation. Melbourne School District Superintendent Gerald Cooper said there is no correlation between enrollment and student performance.
"It doesn't make it more efficient, it doesn't save money -- what's the use of it?" Martin asked.
The consensus was that consolidation should be based on performance, consolidation is not financially feasible, and the distance students travel should be considered before schools are forced to consolidate.
The fifth question dealt with the future. Participants agreed schools should provide a safe environment, reflect the community and produce happy citizens. Technology should also be a part of the future schools, and courses should be taken to the students instead of the students going to the courses, participants said. Also, the group agreed preschool is needed to prepare future students.
There will be a public policy meeting made up of all regions Aug. 16 at Pine Bluff. If interested in going contact Karen Smith by phone at 870-266-3590 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.