When relating to public education, the term “consolidation” refers to the combining of schools, districts, or administrative units in rural communities as a way to save costs and broaden educational opportunities. This highly contentious education policy has been implemented since the nineteenth century across the country in states such as New York, Kansas, Vermont, and Wyoming. In Arkansas, rural schools and districts have faced consolidation policies throughout most of the history of public education in the state. The most recent wave of school consolidation occurred as part of Governor Mike Huckabee’s response to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Lake View School District vs. Huckabee, which stated that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional.
Early efforts to consolidate Arkansas’s many small rural schools began under Governor George Donaghey (1909–1913). This education reform was picked up again during the 1920s, when a law was passed in 1929 that allowed a county’s voters to approve the consolidation of local schools. This law contributed to the closure of more than 1,500 school districts. Consolidation did not continue at this pace, however, when the legislature passed yet another law two years later that required the majority of residents in both of the affected school districts to approve a merger. Then, in 1946, various stakeholders failed in their attempt to pass legislation that would result in the consolidation of another 1,500 school districts in an effort to provide high schools for all students, as many districts were only offering education through the eighth grade. Consolidation advocates tried again in 1948. At issue were the methods for appealing closure decisions, the loss of local control, the length of student commutes, and the loss of education jobs. This time, the consolidation measure passed by a popular vote, and more than 1,100 school districts were closed between 1948 and 1949.
The Public Education Reorganization Act—Act 60 of the Second Extraordinary Session of 2003—is the current consolidation policy that mandates operational changes for all districts with fewer than 350 students. Despite the fact that people commonly conflate the two terms, there are actually two options for merging school districts under this policy. “Consolidation” refers specifically to the joining of two or more districts to create a new single district. Under consolidation, which can be purely administrative, schools are not necessarily closed. By contrast, “annexation” is the process by which an affected district loses territory or students to a receiving district. Schools often close under annexation.
Under Act 60, districts may voluntarily submit a consolidation or annexation petition, or the Arkansas State Board of Education may choose to initiate the process. Ultimately, the State Board must rule on the new configuration of the affected district. In considering consolidation or annexation petitions, the board is to weigh whether the affected districts have academic or financial problems. Ultimately, the board is to apply its discretion to determine if the proposed solution best meets the needs of the involved districts.
Advocates of school consolidation believe that closing small schools or combining the administrative services will lead to economies of scale. For example, only one superintendent may be needed to supervise a district of 700 students, rather than having two superintendents, each of whom runs a district of only 350 students. The theory is that by pooling resources and cutting overhead costs, small districts and schools will be able to hire more effective teachers, operate better facilities, offer a wider array of courses, and provide broader extracurricular opportunities. In this way, advocates believe that students in small districts will have equitable access to high-quality educational programs.
Opponents of school consolidation believe that these policies have negative consequences for students and communities. Opponents argue that students in smaller schools receive more attention from teachers and that parents tend to be more engaged. Further, they assert that increased bus rides place an undue burden on students and prevent them from participating fully in after-school activities. One of the most commonly cited objections to consolidation or annexation is that local communities lose the center of public life. In addition to the potential loss of jobs for community residents when schools close, communities can no longer rally around a Friday night football or basketball game, for example.
One recent example of the clash over consolidation occurred in 2006 in Saline County, just west of Little Rock (Pulaski County). Although the Paron School District had been folded into the Bryant School District in 2004, Paron High School was not initially closed. However, since only 111 students were enrolled in Paron High School during the 2005–06 school year, the Bryant School Board voted to close Paron High School starting in April of that year and to move those students to Bryant High, which was a thirty-mile bus ride away. Despite the fact that Paron High did not have the staff to offer the state’s thirty-eight required courses, or the money to balance its budget, Paron community members were outraged and petitioned the State Board of Education to keep the school open. Paron High supporters protested at the hearing with signs, but the board affirmed the decision to close the school for the 2006–07 school year.
Undeterred, the Paron High supporters filed a lawsuit four days later against the Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board of Education; they claimed that the state had not complied with legislation requiring it to study how to serve the educational needs of students in isolated school districts. As in the past, school consolidation then became a central issue in the state political elections, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson campaigned on Paron’s behalf. Hutchinson’s solution was to exempt small rural schools from offering the thirty-eight mandated courses, but Democrat Mike Beebe thought that such a response would run afoul of the state’s constitutional responsibility for public education. Attorney general candidates also weighed in, with Republican Gunner DeLay criticizing the state bureaucrats as “predators” who were conducting “an attack on the rural way of life that many Arkansans choose for their family.” After a temporary injunction was granted to allow students to continue attending Paron High, the school was eventually closed in 2006.
Little research exists on how consolidation affects communities and students, and the evidence that does exist is mixed. Most related research focuses on the optimal size for schools and districts regarding financial efficiencies, but, again, optimal district size varies by state. In Arkansas, between 2003 and 2006, 121 districts were directly touched by consolidation or annexation, either as affected or receiving districts. These districts are geographically scattered throughout the various rural regions of the state. As of the 2008–09 school year, there were 246 public school districts in the state. By 2015, there were 257.
On March 11, 2015, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill that allows smaller school districts to apply for a waiver, avoiding consolidation, provided that they met academic, fiscal, and facility standards.
For additional information:
Arkansas Department of Education. http://www.arkansased.org (accessed April 11, 2022).
Bleed, Jake, and Michael R. Wickline. “Paron Vote Called Attack on Way of Life.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. August 22, 2006, pp. 1B, 8B.
Collins, Gregory J. “School District Consolidation and Its Academic and Financial Effects.” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2019.
Davis, Deborah Ann St. Cyr. “An Analysis of the School Consolidation Issue in Arkansas.” EdD diss., University of Arkansas, 2005.
Howell, Cynthia. “Board Gives Bryant OK to Shut Paron High: School to Close Next School Year.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 9, 2006, pp. 1B, 3B.
Kerrigan, Steve M. “Consolidation and Reorganization of Schools and School Districts in the United States from 1993 to 2012: An Examination of the Influence of State Policies and Laws on Educational Restructuring.” EdD diss, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2019.
Ledbetter, Calvin R., Jr. “The Fight for School Consolidation in Arkansas, 1946–1948.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (Spring 2006): 45–57.
Perkins, J. Blake. “Dynamics of Rural School Consolidation in the Arkansas Ozarks, 1900–1950.” MA thesis, Missouri State University, 2010.
Thomas, Susan Barrett. “Legislative Decision Making in the Policy Making Process: Public School Consolidation and the 2003 Special Session of the 84th Arkansas General Assembly.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2006.
Marc J. Holley
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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