Commonwealth Journal

January 22, 2014

Pulaski County Schools need to re-think contract issue

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

When my family moved back to Pulaski County before my eighth-grade year, we lived in Pulaski County School District territory. 
However, I never attended a county school. I went to Science Hill School, and then on to Somerset High School.
It was a matter of choice. For one, we’d heard good things about Science Hill, and my parents had a close friend teaching there, someone they wanted to be my instructor. As far as Somerset, most of my close friends from Science Hill were going there and there was a perception at that time that it had a stronger academic reputation than the other high schools. (I have no way of knowing if that was a fair assessment or not, but it does seem that in today’s climate, all of the high schools are pretty evenly matched.)
I am completely happy with the decisions that were made, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. That is no knock on the county school district at all, but we made as a family decisions for me that we felt were for the best, and in hindsight, we were right.
That’s why I have such difficulty digesting the situation going on now between our local school systems, and Pulaski County’s decision to put the kibosh on additional students in their territory being allowed to attend either Science Hill or Somerset.
I know the county has its reasons. I understand them.
But they’re just wrong. The decision is wrong.
For years now, the county has maintained “non-resident pupil” contracts with the other public school districts in the area. A certain number of students each year were allowed to go to Somerset, a certain number to Science Hill. There were waiting lists for students hoping to be enrolled at either of the two smaller districts even though they actually lived outside the set boundaries of either one.
Last year, Pulaski pulled the rug out from under Science Hill, limiting them to only the non-resident students already enrolled and their siblings, without being able to add any new ones. This year, that continued — and Somerset Independent Schools were given the same deal in their contract for the 2014-15 school year, passed at last week’s Pulaski County Board of Education meeting.
I don’t remember any such waiting lists from back in my day — then again, that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we all carved our notes into stone tablets — but what that proves is that attending Science Hill and Somerset is something people still want to do. That, like my family, there are people who feel, for whatever reason, that attending school in one of those districts would be in their best interests. That where in the county they may happen to live shouldn’t be the key determining factor in their educational future.
I say it over and over again on this opinion page, but it never stops being true: Nothing is more important than freedom, no bedrock of our nation is greater. Anything that increases freedom and liberty is to be sought after and protected; anything that diminishes it or restrains it is to be rejected.
The parents who live in county territory but who want their children to attend Science Hill or Somerset now have less freedom, specifically freedom of choice. It’s as simple as that. 
Pulaski County Superintendent Steve Butcher said he felt like the district’s enrollment numbers were going “flat.” That they weren’t gaining more students. In fact, he said that last year, enrollment actually went down. The concern is that it could cost the district teachers and resources as a result.
That’s because the state gives the school a little bit short of $4,000 for each student that attends. So you could argue it’s a money issue. Get more students, get more money. 
I’ll give Butcher the benefit of the doubt for not looking at it in so crass a way — he noted that he’s looking out for his own school district’s well-being, and I get that — but I think even he would say it’s about what’s best for children and families, more than anything else.
And what’s best for children and families — as I know from experience — is to have a choice. To have options. To be able to control your own educational destiny. If you’re really committed to bettering the lives our community’s youth, that goal should take precedence over everything, including your own school district’s bottom line. 
Educational leaders are held to a higher standard than dollars and cents. They are obligated to uphold a cause: What is best for the kids? Worrying only about what’s best for your own enrolled students isn’t enough. There’s a bigger picture in play, and if county school administrators are honest with themselves, I think they’d have to admit that.
Over this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, we are reminded a lot of the days of school segregation and the battle for civil rights in the educational arena. Carlotta Walls LaNier spoke at Friday’s Unity Breakfast at Somerset Community College. She was one of the “Little Rock Nine” — a group of nine students who enrolled (albeit against great resistance) at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down segregated schools as unconstitutional.
These nine students were not the only ones to try to enroll — around 100 or so did, mentioned Walls LaNier — they were just those that were chosen. Walls LaNier felt that Little Rock Central offered a better opportunity to get the kind of educational experience she wanted, and she had to battle to get it.
Certainly, the racial prejudices behind that unpleasantness in our nation’s past are nothing like what’s happening in this today. Pulaski County’s motivations are simply about growing their school district’s numbers and getting the SEEK money from the state that comes with the deal. Yet we are reminded just how important having the ability to pursue your own academic career is, and how preciously we must guard that right — and the effort some will go to make sure they can.
Will Pulaski County Schools having more state money mean better opportunities for their own students? Of course it will.
But don’t force kids to be there who would rather be somewhere else. All that does is hurt them. No amount of money is worth denying freedom of choice to a family that’s trying to get the best educational experience for their own individual needs. 
You can do better, Pulaski County Schools. Put the needs of all children over the needs of your own. It’s just the right thing to do.