Census figures show that rural Arkansas has been dying for more than half a century. Urbanization prevails in this state as in the rest of America. But the little band of rural Arkansans left is a hardy lot. To save their tiny local schools, these men and women out-organized and outfought the governor, big corporations, the press, and what should have been a majority of the state legislature. For beating the odds and imposing their will on the state, Mr. and Mrs. Rural Arkansas are the Arkansas Times' Arkansans of the Year.
The city boys wanted to consolidate school districts on the basis of enrollment, part of an effort to comply with a court order for reform of the public school system. At one point, Gov. Mike Huckabee proposed consolidating all districts with fewer than 1,500 students. After considerable negotiation and compromise by legislators and the governor, a bill to consolidate school districts with fewer than 500 students cleared the Senate. It would have meant consolidation for about 100 of the state's 300-plus districts. Those 100 districts serve only about 31,000 (7 percent) of Arkansas's 450,000 students. But they have one-third of the school superintendents, and that proved a resourceful and desperate group. A ferocious lobbying effort by the small-school faction killed the bill in the House of Representatives.
The winning side included superintendents who converted to fulltime lobbyists, school boards, parents and powerful legislators, like Speaker of the House Herschel Cleveland of Paris. Of them all, the Times chose Lavina Grandon of Valley Springs (Boone County), an English teacher and tough cookie, as the embodiment of the Rural Arkansas spirit.
Grandon was the principal organizer of Save Our Schools, an anti-consolidation group. In that capacity, she presided over a large and rather remarkable rally in front of the Capitol on Dec. 8, just before the legislature convened in a special session to take up consolidation legislation and other school-reform measures. Busloads of schoolchildren from around the state were among those attending the rally, missing classes for the day. SOS spokesmen responded to critics that the rally could be considered a field trip for the kids.
The rally was a high point. Grandon's involvement had begun almost a year earlier. She told a reporter after the rally that a speech by Huckabee on Jan. 14, 2003, in which he called for school consolidation, was the impetus. Valley Springs, with about 950 students, would have been consolidated under Huckabee's original proposal.
A few days after the speech, Grandon said, a Valley Springs government teacher asked, "Are we going to stand for this?" They weren't. Grandon and others planned a strategy for resistance, using e-mail and other methods to contact all the small schools in the state, and all the grass-roots groups opposing consolidation. Meetings were held. Petitions were signed.
Valley Springs was particularly outraged, Grandon said, "because the governor had come to our school in the spring and told us that Valley Springs was a model school. Our ACT scores are above state and national averages. Our scores on state tests are way above average. We're efficient. Then the first thing he proposed in his second term was to consolidate. I campaigned for him [in the 2002 governor's race]. I bitterly regret it now."
One criticism of small schools is that they can't offer as many courses as larger schools. "Twenty-eight classes is the most a student can take," Grandon said. "Many small schools offer 60 or 70 classes. There are only so many optional courses students can take anyway. The main thing is the core curriculum, and having classes for students of differing abilities. That's more efficient than paying someone to teach fashion design."
At one time, consolidation may have served a purpose, Grandon said, but "I think we've gained all we can gain from consolidation. Now, we'd be transporting students a long way. Families would have trouble participating with their kids so far away."
Does "Save Our Schools" also mean "Save Our Communities"? And do these small communities with their limited opportunities need to be saved, or are they just a convenience for people who like to live out in the country?
"I do think it all works together. You can't separate education from people's lives. It's a function of the community to educate the children. I think it is vital to the economy and the political health of this state that that we continue to cherish and support our small communities."
Grandon herself is a 1967 graduate of Valley Springs High. Her children and many other relatives also attended the school. It's a true rural district; the town of Valley Springs has a population of only about 130.
So what do the graduates of Valley Springs High School do after they graduate? "About 60 percent of them go to college. We try to see that the others get vo-tech training. There's a vo-tech school nearby in Harrison."
And after their post-secondary education, do the young sons and daughters of Valley Springs come home to settle? "We don't have everything that the bigger towns have ... But the ones that come back can find work in teaching, or government or business. And a lot of them come back. There's something about a small town that's different - the way people depend on each other. I don't know how you can put a value on that."
For what it's worth, the Times called a few successful products of small schools to see what they thought about the consolidation fight. Charles Dunn, president of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia, graduated from high school "at the top of a class of seven." That was in 1963 at McNeil (Columbia County). The district survives, despite its small size, in part because separate black and white schools have integrated since Dunn's day. Dunn, who has spoken at McNeil graduation ceremonies in recent years, estimated that the integrated McNeil High School has graduating classes in the 20s.
"I had excellent instructors," Dunn said. "Most of them had master's degrees. The course offerings were limited. Spanish was the only foreign language taught at the time, and second-year algebra was the highest math. But English, history, chemistry, I think were comparable to other schools. I was pretty well prepared for college." The great advantage of attending such a small school was that "I got to be involved in sports, I was in the junior and senior plays, virtually every activity I was involved in, and so were the other kids."
Dunn was a member of the blue-ribbon commission created by the legislature in 2001 to recommend school reforms that would comply with a court order. The commission reported to the governor and the legislature just before the 2003 legislative session. As with many such commissions before it, the recommendations were largely ignored. They included the establishment of regional high schools. Dunn said the commission deliberately avoided recommending a minimum size for schools, knowing the sensitivity of the subject. "Instead, we recommended standards that would be very hard for small schools to meet. As a university president, I understand the need for efficiency. It makes little sense to spend $9,000 per student when you could do the same job for $5,000 in a larger district."
Bill Bristow of Jonesboro is one of the state's foremost trial lawyers. He was also the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1998, losing to the incumbent, Huckabee. Bristow went to school at Strawberry (Lawrence County), where he was a noted basketball player. He went from Strawberry to Arkansas College at Batesville (now Lyon College), then earned a law degree at Harvard. The Strawberry School District no longer exists, having been consolidated with another district some years ago. The new district, River Valley, still has only about 350 students.
"I guess with my experience, I'd be a defender of small schools," Bristow said. "I believe that under certain circumstances, small schools may be able to offer a very high quality of education." The most important determinant of success in education has nothing to do with school size, he said. "The most important thing is the parenting involved. If you're blessed with committed, involved parents, education is more likely to be successful. If not, the chances for success are not as good."
If a small school district is doing a good job of educating kids, that's sufficient reason to retain it, Bristow said, adding that some districts are so small they lack the resources to do a good job. "I hate to see the use of an arbitrary number that ignores the quality of education," he said. On the other hand, if a district is not providing quality education, "The argument that we're holding on to the school because we don't want to lose the community, or lose the basketball team, is not persuasive."
"Why do you guys not care about your community? You’re tearing it down, not building it up, especially in the black community … It’s just a simple question — do you care?" one mother asked the superintendent. "Ma’am, I do care deeply about this district, and I do believe wholeheartedly we are making a better district every day," Poore replied.
When President-elect Trump announced he would, in a few days, force Congress to enact comprehensive health insurance for everyone, poor or rich, that would provide better and cheaper care than they've ever gotten, you had to wonder whether this guy is a miracle worker or a fool.