The U.S. economy is strengthening, but recovery appears to be many months away for financially struggling states. In one southern state, Arkansas, weak revenues have helped fuel a growing education crisis. Arkansas ranks 46th out of 50 in teacher salaries, equally low in spending per pupil, and near the bottom in student achievement.
Things are so dire in the home state of former president Bill Clinton that the state supreme court has given the governor and legislature until January to correct drastic imbalances in facilities, textbooks, and teacher salaries between relatively prosperous school districts and poor ones like Lee County, in the Mississippi River Delta region of the state. This is home to the blues; cotton and rice and soybean farms; and dusty little towns so bleak you're lucky to find an open store or to get a cell-phone signal.
Three-fourths of Arkansas adults have at least a high school education. But in Lee County, where Nancy Blount teaches Spanish in the county's one public high school, only about half the students make it that far. Ms. Blount, one of twelve children of an Arkansas tenant farmer and his wife, says that for a poor girl, education was the only way out the fields.
"I didn't like chopping cotton in a 100 degrees [Farenheit; 40 degrees centigrade]," she said. "And I knew that if I did not get educated, that's where I would be the rest of my life, or cleaning folks' houses for forty cents an hour.
"When I got out of the cotton fields, I promised the good Lord that I would spend my time and my life trying to help kids who are growing up pretty much like I did," continued Ms. Blount. And answered "Definitely," when asked does it break her heart, though, to see some of these kids, where they live and how they have to get along. "And also it breaks my heart when a lot of them won't take advantage of the education that's placed before them. We're teaching the kids of kids who had kids."
Nancy Blount says Lee County is so bereft of industry, the schools are the second-biggest employer. That means there's almost no tax base to pay for them. Kids and families leave Lee County in search of work, and school enrollment typically drops by 150 or more each year. That means even less money from Washington and the Arkansas capital in Little Rock.
"They penalize us for having fewer students," she said. "Yet they hold us to the same standards. And because of the low salary base, we can't attract the young and bright [teacher] because they go someplace else. There is really nothing else to do here. They can go right up the road somewhere and make five, ten thousand dollars more."
Despite the low pay and generally bleak surroundings, a few bright, young teachers do come to Lee County, and there are student success stories. Doctors and lawyers, a state appeals-court judge, and even a recent U.S. transportation secretary went to school here. But true optimism is hard to find.
Nancy Blount can afford a comfortable home, many kilometers north of the depressed and depressing county seat of Marianna, only because she and her husband, Sam, operate a funeral home and small limousine service on the side.
Ms. Blount says she would love to see Arkansas' governor, or even President Bush, spend a week in her shoes, facing a classroom of what she says are mostly decent kids with grim prospects. But she says teachers themselves must share the blame for the schools' struggles.
"We've made schools work that should not have worked, should have been closed a long time ago," explained Ms. Blount. "We've made them work at our expense, because we were concerned about saying, 'Let's do it anyway for the children.' So as a result, the state and the federal government have decided that, 'Well, when we do the budget, we can do everybody else, and whatever is left, we'll give it to education. Those educators are so dedicated, they're going to do it anyway.' "
Two years ago, Congress passed President Bush's education initiative called the No Child Left Behind Act. It mandated a series of changes aimed at improving students' academic achievement. That makes great theory, Nancy Blount says, but she sees no sign of new teachers, better equipment, or additional funding in Lee County.
"There are a lot of mandates and ideas about how we're going to improve education, and what educators have to do, what kids have to be responsible for," she said. "But then, we don't have the money to fund it.
"Oh, it's depressing," continued Ms. Blount. "But I keep saying, 'Something has to change.' If we continue doing the same things, we're going to keep getting the same results. As long as we're going along and letting them under-fund, under-pay, let our facilities fall in - and we're still teaching in them - they're going to continue."
Ms. Blount knows that critics often say higher salaries don't equate to better teaching. Nonsense, she says.
"It's not just the money," she explained. "But being able to afford a comfortable living so that you can spend your time preparing to teach and teaching.
"Teachers have to work more than one job - two or three jobs - to get the necessities and a few desires, not being extravagant," continued Ms. Blount. "That's time that could be spent preparing to teach, to work with parents, with students after school, that teachers don't have."
Ms. Blount sees the future as a stark choice.
"If things do not change in the way schools are funded, if the state and federal governments don't play a larger part, we're not going to make it," she said. "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!"
Facing that January deadline set by the state court, Arkansas' governor has called a special session of the legislature for December to try to, somehow, find more money to spread around, even to poor, rural areas like Lee County. Where that money will come from, nobody knows.