During the lengthy debate over education reform that we've been engaged in since the November 2002 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in the Lake View case, we've heard a lot about tradition, mascots, superintendents and more. I fear, though, we've forgotten one thing -- the children of Arkansas.
It's easy to boil down what the Supreme Court ordered us to do. It ordered us to provide all children the opportunity to receive a good education. Children must be given that opportunity whether they live in Rogers or Eudora, Paragould or Foreman. The Supreme Court decision never dealt with school districts and their administrators. It dealt with schoolchildren. And to provide those children with an adequate education, we must have a more efficient delivery system. Sadly, those who have made the most noise have been focused on saving administrative entities rather than saving the boys and girls in the classroom.
I recently read an e-mail from an Iowa native who moved to Arkansas just before entering the 10th grade. Writing about an Iowa school reform effort, this person said, "The towns my mother and father were from consolidated with a third town to form one school district. Believe it or not, all three towns are still in existence today. The only difference is their children have benefited from 40 years of educational opportunities, including many more extracurricular activities than just the basketball teams each of these small towns had before consolidation. I recently read somewhere that Iowa has the highest literacy rate of any state in the country, and it is primarily a rural farming state. Why can't we offer similar educational opportunities to our Arkansas children?"
I've been asking the same question for the past year. Of his high school experience in Arkansas, this man wrote: "I did not do one thing in any class that I had not already done through the ninth grade in Iowa. What I did do was play basketball before school and shoot free throws at lunch. Basketball practice started the last class period and continued until dinner. Don't get me wrong. I loved basketball and voluntarily played at night and on the weekends. I was able to play this much basketball only because I did not have to study due to having already been exposed in Iowa by the ninth grade to what was being taught. I was my school's first National Merit finalist, but I've always believed it was based on what I had already learned by the ninth grade in Iowa. I firmly believe I benefited greatly from the educational opportunities I received in a small Iowa town only because that state had the wisdom to consolidate small schools and make the opportunities available to all. I'm also firmly convinced there are many children similar to me in small Arkansas towns with tremendous potential. They are dependent on the adults to put opportunities in place for them."
This e-mail reminds us again of the people we're supposed to be helping -- the children. Let me also quote a superintendent who realizes what a crucial moment we've reached in our state's history. He wrote, "There are many dogs in this hunt. All are barking with vigor as they chase the elusive rabbit of providing a plan that will appease the court, ward off future lawsuits, actually do the job and not bankrupt the citizens of the state. ... This legislative body must be willing to seek what is best for all the state's children without total regard being given to impassioned constituents. In some sense, I hope they can be willing to be called heroes as future generations look back, even if the actions cause vilification in the present. If not, they should never have sought a public office, a position of service or sought to be a leader of others."
This superintendent went on to write, "There is a court-mandated opportunity here that may never come again as a chance to make voluntary changes that will benefit all -- yes, all -- of the state's children. The haves and the have-nots, the north of I-40 and west of I-30 students and those in the opposite direction. The lumberjacks, the tycoons, the cotton pickers, the poultry farmers and those who represent them all have a chance to put aside personal, short-term turf wars and focus on the future. I hope we do not blow this opportunity in the name of school pride."
No decision we've made in recent Arkansas history will have as much of an effect on the future of our state as the decisions we make now and in the months to come regarding public education. We owe every child the opportunity to succeed. When they prosper, we all prosper. Let's never forget the devastating effect the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School had on our state. For years, Arkansas was a pariah for business leaders across the country. When the Lake View ruling was issued 14 months ago, I quickly determined I wouldn't repeat the mistake of defying a court order.