A dismal record of court-run schools


Dana D. Kelley


It was disheartening to read Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comments welcoming a state Supreme Court takeover of public education. For an elected official to embrace usurpation of any legislative function is bad enough, but the track record of courts supervising schools is even worse.

 Funding equalization lawsuits has been bedeviling schools the past 20 years, but before that it was desegregation. Both issues are meritorious. The rub is in whether court supervision is or was the proper—or effective—method of dealing with them.

In the case of court-supervised desegregation, there’s little to cheer about. Across the country, in city after city, billions of dollars were spent in developing desegregation plans, monitoring and micromanaging school operations, busing students around, only to watch voluntary segregation replace the statesponsored variety.

The nation’s longest-running desegregation case ended in August last year when Baton Rouge was freed from court supervision after 47 years and untold millions of dollars. The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board president, Jackie Mims, summed up the progress: "Today our schools are as segregated as they were 47 years ago."

Baton Rouge’s 45,000-student district is nearly 75 percent black, with many still going to all-black schools.

We’re virtually back where we were," Sims said.

Courts have long seemed to confuse ending forced segregation with enacting forced integration. The former is legally attainable; the latter is legally impossible, at least as long as we’re a free country. But who can blame lawyers for trying to do the impossible if it makes them rich?

Baton Rouge isn’t atypical. Kansas City had a similar but more costly failure. Its desegregation case ended last year after 26 years and more than $2 billion. The city district’s racial makeup is 83 percent minority, 68 percent black.

Little Rock’s court-supervised desegregation lawsuit ended in 2002 after 45 years of litigation and only $40-plus million. (We’re a poor state, after all.) Still, the district remains almost 70 percent black.

In each of those cases, and many others like them, the real results of court intervention were to sap money out of education to pay for litigation and to solidify segregated schools in large city districts by causing whites to abandon them. The courts made the cases about race rather than learning.

Ironically, our leaders haven’t learned anything from looking around at all the spectacular desegregation debacles, either, and are inviting more court-ordered "solutions."

With apologies to Huckabee, nothing could be worse for Arkansas public education than a court stepping in to supervise reform, and that includes legislative stalemate. There are elections coming and it’s likely that school reform will be an issue with voters. Now that all the old, tired arguments (like mindless numerical consolidation) have met with deserved deadlock, maybe we’ll get some truly innovative ideas.

We certainly have some chilling examples of what to avoid. If we go down the centralized Robin Hood path taken by Vermont—a hastily passed school funding law in which wealthy districts were forced by the state to fund poor ones—we could have Northwest Arkansas considering secession like the resort town of Killington, whose property taxes have multiplied since the legislation.

Vermont, like West Virginia, is a study in the government’s mess-making of schools. West Virginia voters, one of the few electorates poorer than Arkansas’, were originally told that consolidation would save money, only affect high schools and result in more advanced curricula offerings. Ten years later, the state had more school administrators and costs than before (but 40,000 fewer students), consolidated elementary schools with endless bus rides and disgruntled patrons because advanced classes never materialized.

In primarily rural Vermont, the legislature promised lower taxes by spreading the wealth around from 23 "gold towns" to 225 needy ones in response to a 1997 state supreme court ruling ordering funding equalization. As critics predicted, poor towns began voting for huge increases in school budgets, believing the rich towns would pay for them. Before long, silver and even bronze towns were added to the funding list until even low median-income towns became gold towns.

Vermont school spending is up 40 percent from 1997, but enrollment is down 4 percent. The citizens have completely lost local control of their schools and are paying higher taxes for the privilege.

School systems based on a centralized Moscow model are doomed to suffer a Soviet-style collapse. If our legislators really want to get out of the box, they ought to start investigating a fullvoucher, free-choice system for public schools. Let any child go anywhere to the public school of his or her choosing, regardless of race, creed or ethnic heritage. That kind of choice would energize and involve parents more, which is often the make-or-break factor for schools.

 Public schools would then be forced to attract students—imagine that!—instead of merely inheriting them. Consolidation would occur naturally based on a school’s ability to draw students and their accompanying funding. Schools nobody wanted would close; their students would consolidate with other schools by choice.

Best of all, no student would be forced to attend a school with inadequate facilities or curricula, although they would have the liberty to do so. Armed with an equal voucher and a state full of public school choices, both large and small, each student would, indeed, get the opportunity for a suitable, equitable and adequate education.


This story was published Friday, January 16, 2004 in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette but is printed  here by permission of  author,  Dana D. Kelley.
   Dana D. Kelley is a free-lance writer from Jonesboro.





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