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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Adequacy and Equity, Up Close and Personal

In the summer of 1998, my family moved back to Little Rock from Silver Spring, Md., where my daughter had just completed kindergarten. When I took her to tour her new school, the principal showed us the building from top to bottom. Afterward, she asked my daughter if she had any questions.
Somewhat to my surprise, my daughter did. And they were good ones.
"Where's the science room?" Ahh, of course, her school in Maryland had an airy and wonderfully equipped science room for the K-4 students it served. Kids there loved science. The Little Rock principal sadly explained that her school couldn't offer one. The school was so crowded, she said, teachers had to lead science lessons in their own classrooms.
"Oh, well, where's the art room?" Same story. My daughter's old school in Maryland had a great one. This school in Little Rock didn't have one at all.
"Do you have a gym for P.E.?" Again, where physical education in Silver Spring occurred in a gym designed for running and playing, P.E. at this school happened outside or in the regular classroom.
So, about the same time Pulaski County Judge Kilgore was considering the school funding case that would become "Lake View," my 6-year-old daughter pointed out the relative inadequacies she found in the state's largest school district. It only took three simple questions.
A year or so later, I was writing free-lance and pitched a story about a kindergarten teacher who had lost and been reissued his teacher's license to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. To profile the gentleman, I drove to his school in the Lake View School District, which at that time meant no more to me than a small place on the eastern edge of the state.
But that visit left a vivid impression. The children were well behaved, looked precious in their white-top-black-bottom uniforms and seemed eager to learn. So I was horrified to discover that this teacher, who had overcome adversity to re-earn his license, had no materials with which to teach his  students. He had to travel to the Wal-Mart in Helena or West Memphis to purchase alphabet coloring books and math workbooks that he could copy and use as lessons for his 20-plus pupils. The school district simply couldn't afford books for these children.
So, at LakeView, I not only witnessed Arkansas's  inadequacy, the inequity within our state's schools stared me in the face as well.
Gov. Beebe and others say that the Arkansas Supreme Court got it wrong in their recent decision about school funding.  They are absolutely right.
The intent in creating the current funding formula was to provide an adequate foundation of funding that would allow every Arkansas student access to a quality education -- one that would allow them to learn on par with students, say, from Silver Spring.
By making sure every student had this same adequate foundation, equity would be addressed as well.
I worked at the Arkansas Department of Education during the very exciting post-Lake View years, when the Lake View reforms were being implemented and producing results. Here's how I would explain the funding formula to reporters and others:
School districts are funded through "mils," which are collected through local taxes. The worth of a mil is determined by the wealth of a community. For example, a mil in the Delta often is worth a lot less than a mil in Northwest Arkansas. To correct that inequality, and to make sure that every student in Arkansas was getting a fair shake at a good education, Arkansas created a huge pot into which every district poured the money collected through their first 25 mils. (Most districts collect more than 25 mils, so whatever money they collected from the 26th mil and beyond was theirs to keep and did not go into the state "pot.")
Once all districts' 25 mils were mixed together in the funding pot, it still didn't make a large enough sum to fund all Arkansas students at the level the legislature set to provide an adequate foundation.  Why? Because only a very few districts actually collected enough through 25 mils to fund their own students at an adequate level. Therefore the state kicked in the extra cash needed to fund adequacy from its general revenues.
The result was not perfect but it was much closer than Arkansas had ever been before in providing all students with a good education. In this formula, dollars to fund a more adequate education followed each child to where they were. No longer, as Bill Gates was fond of describing education nationally, did a child's chance for a good education depend on the zip code he or she lived in.
A few years ago, I was standing in line at the airport by a nice, chatty, recently retired couple who lived in the Fountain Lake area. Largely because of its well-off retirees, Fountain Lake is one of the few school districts in Arkansas for which 25 mils can provide the full foundation funding amount for all of its students and have some dollars left over. Learning that I worked for the state, they launched into the unfairness -- and illegality -- of having to send all the money raised from 25 mils to share with other students in the state (though that's not exactly how they phrased it).
I listened patiently, biting my lip so as not to point out their misconceptions. While I didn't, I would easily have bet them the Arkansas Supreme Court would never agree with them.
Never say never, I guess.
By the time my daughter left her Little Rock elementary school, it had a separate art room and science lab. In the years immediately after that, students all across the state benefited from the enormous impact of the Lake View reforms. Warm, safe and dry schools. More resources. Better educational programs. Better-paid teachers. The list goes on.
So whether it comes about through a rehearing by the Arkansas Supreme Court or a technical change in the law as suggested by the Attorney General's Office, Arkansas must reverse this decision. As a state, we can't afford to lose our school funding formula. We've simply come too far to risk going back.

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