Editor’s note: Talk Business Arkansas contributor Steve Brawner begins a recurring feature called “Three Questions” for our education and public policy readers.
Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, the umbrella association comprised of 12 educational administrator organizations. Abernathy was an outspoken presence at the state capitol this past session on a variety of issues.
Prior to joining AAEA, he was superintendent of Bryant.
Brawner: The number of Arkansas school districts has fallen from 369 in 1983 to 239 today. Each one of those means a superintendent loses their job or gets a longer title. When a district falls below 350 students, it faces consolidation. Will this trend continue, or have we reached the point of diminishing returns regarding school consolidations?
Abernathy: I believe there are around 25 to 30 districts that could fall under the 350 number in a few more years. So, the trend will slow down but not stop.
At some point, we must realize that Arkansas is a rural state, and the more districts you close, the longer a kid will have to ride a bus to get to school. The next question is, how long should a student have to ride a bus to school? That is once again a policy decision for our elected officials. Arkansas eliminated high cost transporation funding several years ago, but the inequity is becoming an adequacy issue that will be addressed at some point in time. Hopefully it will be voluntarily addressed.
I would like to see our policy makers start looking at maintaining our rural schools. The way to do this is to make sure schools have adequate broadband. Currently there are less than 10 districts in Arkansas who have adequate broadband to implement PARCC. (Editor’s note: PARCC is the 22-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that is developing assessments for the new Common Core State Standards.) Some districts can purchase additional broadband and other districts cannot. How do you think our students will do on the assessment since they have not been exposed to the curriculum offering due to the lack of broadband? This should make for some interesting conversations as we continue to study adequacy.
Brawner: The AAEA recently began sponsoring a mentoring program for beginning superintendents. What is the one lesson new superintendents must learn as they transition into their new job?
Abernathy: I am not sure there is just one lesson to learn to become an effective superintendent. Obviously school finance is one issue, but how that plays into the overall effectiveness of improving student achievement is a bigger issue. One must be able to juggle several issues at once while keeping your eye on the end result. Many are not prepared to do all of that while maintaining the political realities of the superintendent’s role. In our mentoring program, we try to give them the skills to survive the first year. However, we strongly encourage them to continue their learning in the Arkansas Leadership Academy and the Arkansas Center for Executive Leaders program. The mentoring program should actually be a three-year program.
Brawner: What is the biggest lesson experienced superintendents are having to re-learn amidst all the changes in education?
Abernathy: I think the biggest change is the impact of technology and being able to visualize how technology will be playing a larger role in educating our kids. We may look up 10-20 years from now and the four walls of the traditional classroom will be gone. Kids will be learning from home doing lessons from their school at night or on weekends. We could have teachers making $100,000, but teaching students they only see a few days of the year. I could go on, but ultimately we don’t know what future education will look like, but we know that it will change.
My biggest fear about public education is that we let it be turned over to privatization where companies make money off our kids. Then our hardest-to-educate kids will be left to fend for themselves, and you will see the educational gap widen considerably.