Arkansas’ Constitution guarantees free and equal access to education for all Arkansas students. However, when it comes to access to quality facilities and resources, the state is far from delivering on that guarantee.
The world continues to innovate, evolve and modernize, but many of our traditional public schools lag behind. All states face challenges: deteriorating facility conditions, out-of-date designs and materials, school overcrowding-and Arkansas is certainly no exception, even a decade after the Lakeview case.
When we think about equal access to education, we hardly ever think about the buildings our kids sit in, the roofs over their heads, the cleanliness of their cafeterias and bathrooms, but recent studies reveal that school buildings can have a measurable impact on achievement. Experts report that communities and school districts throughout the country are struggling to meet the maintenance demands of their schools. Arkansas has made positive strides when it comes to school facilities, but the need for more investments in facility maintenance and school innovation is a vital step toward providing all students with an equal opportunity to learn.
In 2005, the Legislature implemented partnership programs that allow school districts to submit a master plan that includes maintenance projects and funding strategies. The focus of state support is for the “warm, safe and dry” standard-ensuring that the schools meet most basic needs of students.
Our schools are meeting that minimal standard. However, we need to be asking ourselves whether being warm, safe and dry is enough.
School facility experts have written about the importance of creating real-world learning environments in schools and suggest dynamic, “child-centric learning environments” for students, taking into consideration scale, color, lighting and spatial concepts to design age-appropriate and easily adaptable spaces. However, many Arkansas public schools do not reflect that. Drastic differences in schools-based, for the most part, on the ability to afford and maintain quality facilities-are creating inequities in educational opportunity for Arkansas children.
In Arkansas, the students that have access to modernized facilities are the students in school districts that can afford it. Facility disparity is typically associated with the Arkansas Delta; however, this issue is larger than that. Rural and low-income school districts throughout the state struggle with inadequate facilities.
This summer, as part of an internship with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, I visited school districts across the state to see what our students’ learning environments were like, the good and the bad.
Every district is different: culturally, ethnically, economically and geographically. Some school districts thrive with renovated or brand-new infrastructure: smart boards in every classroom; colorful walls; energy-efficient fluorescent lighting; automatic toilets and sinks; facilities for health sciences, agriculture and career centers-all equipped with resources that provide for a comfortable, high-quality educational environment. Other districts exist in a different reality: small hallways and classroom sizes, old water fountains, technologically inadequate classrooms, decrepit buildings and outdated kitchen equipment.
Many of our schools can only repair and maintain the status quo rather than renovate to meet modern educational needs. This is strongly connected to financial variances across the state.Some schools are in areas that have major industries and expensive housing, while other school districts are in agricultural areas with low property wealth. These districts are unable to raise enough funds, regardless of how high they raise their millage rate, to offer competitive schools and competitive facilities.
In areas with higher property values, districts are able to modernize and update outdated facilities even if they are not building new schools. These districts build facilities that offer students health-science training, construction trades and engineering design shops with state-of-the-art equipment-opportunities that are not available to students in low-property-wealth areas of the state. Schools in low-income areas are fighting to maintain the minimum status of “warm, safe and dry.” It is important to continue investing in our traditional public schools because our students are the future of the state’s work force. We must consider our future economic needs if we want Arkansas’ children to thrive. A quality educational environment should not be available only to districts that can afford it.
Our Legislature must take a stronger role to ensure that our school facilities statewide are not just warm, safe and dry, but are equitable in providing innovative learning environments that prepare all students to thrive in an evolving and globalized world.
Bailey Perkins is an intern for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in Little Rock and a second-year graduate student at the University of Oklahoma.