I’ve written about the noise
that followed Sen. Alan Clark’s introduction of a bill to punish school districts with low reading scores by taking their state “school lunch money.” As I explained from the beginning, this isn’t food money but money important to help improve the education of the poorest, most at-risk kids in Arkansas. And an educator has stepped forward to explain just how important.

Confusion about the bill, on account of the name of the categorical funding (awarded to schools based on their percentage of poor students qualifying for subsidized lunches), has allowed Clark to dodge the real story — how damaging it would be to require a 70 percent achievement rate on reading scores to qualify for full additional education money. (Clark would take it all after three years of a district’s failing to improve. Dozens and dozens of schools don’t meet that standard and have struggled to improve under the state’s new testing regimen.)

Into the issue steps Glen Fenter, a former community college president who’s now superintendent of the Marion School District in a part of the state, the Delta, that knows the needs of poor students and how hard it is to reach them. He wrote to me and we later talked. He said in an initial e-mail:

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of NSL [National School Lunch] funding to our efforts to break the cycle of poverty in our region. I wish that every legislator would take the time to spend just one day in an eastern or southern Arkansas poverty-laced classroom. I am confident that most would have a number of profound epiphanies prior to the conclusion of their day.

Fenter also put together a paper on the subject. I’d recommend it to any legislator  inclined to take away money meant to lift the performance of at-risk students. Yes, the categorical funding program needs some improvement to make sure it’s used for what it’s intended to do. But the solution is NOT to take it away from those who need it most. I’d particularly urge Fenter’s paper on those who are inclined to make complicated decisions about difficult education situations guided by the false god of performance on a single high-stakes test.

Fenter’s paper explains the national move to school standards and how the oversimplification of assessing schools to a single letter grade is short on important information, including student demographics. He notes that Arkansas’s system accounts for “improvement” of students during the year, as well as a test score. But he notes that even the test-friendly academics at the Walton’s “school reform” unit at their Fayetteville university think it could stand improvement. Fenter:

Academic growth is what a student learns from one year to another; however, academic achievement can be an extension of what students come to school with in terms of readiness and home experiences  and certainly represents a huge variable that must be accounted for when properly assigning value to school efforts. 

Alan Clark wants to deprive help based only on the reading score, never mind where those kids started or what impossible situations they might face at home.

The Arkansas school grades, with demographics overlaid, tell the story. The whiter the school the higher the grade. The poorer the school the lower the grade (see chart at top).

There are no A or B-rated high schools in the state with a majority low-income and majority black population, and only four (4) in the entire state of Arkansas received a C rating. All others received a D or F rating

Clearly, children raised in generational poverty can lack intellectual stimulation, emotional support, a literate environment, and physical safety.

Research also concludes that children from single-parent homes have lower graduation rates and lower grade point averages; however, some do go on to have academic success. When controlling for economic and racial differences of the family, students from two-parent homes outperform students from single parent homes across various measures

When Arkansas adopted a grading system in 2015, Fenter writes, schools were assured rewards or penalties wouldn’t attach. That’s now changed, with substantial rewards for “achievement.”

Guess what? The schools with fewer poor students tend to reap greater rewards. Clark’s plan would magnify that unfairness.


In Marion, kindergarten students are screened for fundamental skills to identify where instructional support is needed. More than half aren’t ready for kindergarten, as measured by the screening. When you start behind, catching up takes a long time. And it gets harder as the student gets older.

This means districts that enroll high numbers of students who start behind are operating at a “distinct disadvantage” when compared to districts with dissimilar demographics, Fenter says.

Any school rating system that does not account for such differences in student population must be categorized as clearly and indefensibly flawed.

Starting behind isn’t the only obstacle. Poor kids move a lot. This affects graduation rates and “on-time” credits, both factors in the grading system. Student attendance, another grading factor, is affected by lack of transportation and poor health. There’s also a factor for community service in grading schools. Seems benign. Not to Fenter:

Schools are rewarded according to the number of volunteer hours that students earn from 9th to 12th grade. Many students living in poverty must work after school to supplement family income and cannot commit those hours to volunteer work. Moreover, schools in poorer communities may well not have sufficient appropriate placement opportunities for their students and/or the resources to meet the new unfunded staffing requirements of the program.

The Lakeview school decision, which required adequate and equal education, is no longer a source of hope for struggling districts, Fenter writes. The Arkansas Supreme Court’s new view of sovereign immunity raises the question of whether another challenge of state funding could even be brought. Many think the time would otherwise be ripe. The legislature regularly falls short in meeting the adequacy standard in financing.

There also has been inconsistent funding for programs that have proven worth in ending the cycle of poverty, Fenter contends.

We have manufactured a strategy to create a testing and grading model that appears to be intentional in efforts to reward schools based primarily on the affluence of their parents and students. 

Fenter has taken his case to education officials. They dismiss him. They think money doesn’t count. If only there were enough competition — enough Covenant Keepers charter schools, say (sarcasm about this woebegone school intended) — all would be well. Or so the “reformers” think.

Some arithmetic should help, if facts and not faith mattered. The figures show the poor are getting poorer while the rich prosper.

Fenter sees a return to the conditions that fostered the Lakeview case. The problem now is the fear the Arkansas Supreme Court today would be more responsive to Alan Clark than the thousands of poor kids in Arkansas.