The Number


Get back to me when lawmakers agree on what real standards should be

By Doug Thompson

I was ready to nag Rep. Buddy Lovell, D-Marked Tree. He made a fuss over saving a small school district from state-imposed consolidation. He briefly threatened to hang up the session over it.
Then I remembered that advocating for the people who elected him is Lovell’s job.
Then I remembered something else. The state Supreme Court’s Lake View decision on school funding isn’t carved into stone. It contains ways to adapt. Like the constitution, the ruling is a “living document.” If it weren’t, school reform couldn’t happen. The ruling would be self-defeating.
There are reasons the rules regarding school consolidation haven’t changed much. Unfortunately for Lovell and his supporters, those reason are much more solid than mindless awe of an old court case.
The Lake View decision is more than just a ruling about school funding. Lake View is a batch of school reform legislation that the Supreme Court blessed in 2004.
Part of that legislation was a state minimum school district size of 350 students. Anything smaller than that gets consolidated. Notably, the lawyers in the school funding case never brought up consolidation. In fact, Lake View School District in east Arkansas was one of the first victims.
“The number,” as 350 has become known, is something that neither the court nor the pro-consolidation lawmakers picked. Anti-consolidation lawmakers did.
There was a lot of debate back in 2003 and 2004 over what “the number” should be, or if districts should be judged by standards instead.
Very small districts were doomed when consolidation foes simply couldn’t agree on tough school standards. Any standards proposal lost support as soon as any supporters figured out their district wouldn’t make the cut.
The fatal blow came after small school advocates in the House and Senate finally introduced a tough standards bill. The thing had more loopholes than a knitting bee. I wrote at the time that “sweatshops in China” could pass these standards.
With quality out of the picture, lawmakers turned to quantity. The only number based on research that I heard through that horrible, long debate was 500. That came up in discussions of the enormous, detailed consultant’s report on school funding.
That’s when the littlest districts were kicked out of the lifeboat. Lawmakers with districts of 500 students or less went to every other small-district lawmaker and asked what was the lowest number he or she would vote for. They found the majority they needed at 350.
Adopting that number needed no “proof,” but any change to that number did once the court approved the final deal. In lawyer-speak, the “burden of proof” is now on anybody who wants to change the number, not on the state to defend it. Any academic studies or other evidence to meet that burden of proof could drive that number up or down.
The whole thing is maddening to lawmakers who can point to small districts that are doing well. Why should they have to “prove” a small district can succeed when they can point to Weiner, which reportedly is a real-life instance of a small district that’s doing well? It’s like being told to prove that a tree that fell in the forest made some noise.
That’s a great argument. Get back to me on that as soon as you get small-school lawmakers to agree on what the real standards should be.
One last thing: The argument by supporters of Lovell’s bill that they weren’t “changing the number,” that it was just changing the way it calculated 350, didn’t fool anybody. If Lovell’s bill wouldn’t have changed the number, it wouldn’t have helped Weiner.

Categories: Features