Conway students generally do not get a birds-eye view of the dollars the state education department has to work with. They also probably do not know what it is like to be in a school district that has to be taken over by the state or fear falling below 350 students and being dismantled.
Students in some of Conway High School’s history, economics and other related classes got a chance to hear how Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell deals with issues of the budget, underperforming school districts and the Pulaski County desegregation case Friday.
"You are a very fortunate group of students to be in Conway Public Schools," Kimbrell said. "You may not think that, but if I could load you up in a couple buses and take you to some of the school districts that don’t have what you have ... you’d say, ‘Get the bus and get us back to Conway."
Arkansas has 238 public school districts educating almost 500,000 students, Kimbrell said, and sometimes being Commissioner of Education comes with making tough choices.
Students were particularly interested in what happens when a school district is taken over by the state.
"We [educate] through a process in which money flows from the Department of Education into your school districts to provide that education. It’s constitutionally required," Kimbrell said. "When school districts don’t do that, the state has a constitutional obligation to make that happen. And when that’s not happening do you know what we have to do? We have to take over school districts."
Arkansas Department of Education currently runs four school districts. The department removes the local school board and often removes the administration.
"It’s never a lot of fun to do that," Kimbrell said.
When it comes to how schools get funded in Arkansas, public education gets $2.7 billion of the tax dollars in the state because of the state constitution.
"We’re seeing other states that are not doing that and their having their public school funding cut," Kimbrell said. "They’re having to lay off teachers and increase their teacher to pupil ratio."
Currently, high school teachers in Arkansas cannot see more than 150 students each year. In other states, that number is closer to 210.
Kimbrell also told the students they are living in a historic time for Arkansas education with the developments in the Pulaski County desegregation case.
The state and the parties involved recently proposed a settlement before the federal judge to get the state out of that case.
"For us as a state, this is a huge thing," he said. "Thirty-four years later and over $1.2 billion later, on Friday we presented a settlement to end it in the next four years. That’s historic."
(Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1212. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)