Maine's Minot Consolidated School students gather in the school’s gymnasium. Photo via the Maine Department of Education

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, lawmakers and advocates alike, newly attentive to rural America and the myriad challenges many of its communities face, are looking at ways to strengthen their states’ rural areas, endorsing policies targeting everything from expanding broadband access to supporting small-family farms.

Yet many of these states also maintain policies that directly undermine these revitalization efforts: legislation promoting or mandating school closure.

For the past 150 years, the number of rural schools has fallen precipitously. Since the late 1800s, policymakers and school bureaucrats have responded to rapid urbanization, innovations in transportation, and a desire to reform “backwards” rural communities by consolidating and closing rural schools throughout the country, drastically reducing the number of schools. In 1930, the country had more than 262,000 public schools. Today only about 95,000 public schools exist, even though the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1930. In many rural areas, schools are still closing.

Over the past decade, at least 35 states have considered or adopted policies that lead to school consolidation or closure, and in some places, these closures appear to disproportionately impact poor rural communities and rural communities of color.

Some states force the process through minimum enrollments, academic sanctions, or facilities requirements, while others incentivize it with grants, which cash-strapped school districts can find hard to resist.

West Virginia, for example, adopted an aggressive set of consolidation measures in the early 1990s, and from 1990 to 2002, over 300 schools were closed. In Arkansas, officials shuttered more than 100 schools between 2004, when that state’s consolidation law was passed, and 2011. These closures hit rural areas the hardest.

Proponents often use two arguments to justify closing a school and sending its students to another, usually larger school: Larger schools provide more academic and extracurricular opportunities, and larger schools are more efficient, educating a greater number of students at lower costs. Yet the research to support these arguments is mixed. Some studies show no savings with closures, and others argue that small schools located close to students’ homes offer closer student-teacher relationships and more opportunities for parent engagement and student involvement.

On one point, though, the research is clear: School closures threaten the well-being of rural communities. Schools matter, of course, for the education they provide. They cultivate skills and knowledge that a child can apply across contexts and settings throughout his or her life. But they also develop the skills and knowledge particular to a specific place — skills and knowledge necessary for participating in, working in, and leading a particular community. Rural schools create the generation responsible for a community’s future — and, therefore, its sustainability.

And rural schools are also important for reasons beyond the education they provide. They are often a rural community’s largest employer, offering dozens of well-paying and stable jobs, and they support other businesses within a community, like banks and service stations, not to mention the diners and restaurants that get crowded with hungry teens after school and families before Friday night games.

Rural communities with schools are associated with higher home values and lower income inequality, and new businesses are attracted to towns with a strong school system. Schools matter to the social fabric and cultural vitality of a rural community; they are places where relationships are sustained, where traditions are preserved and values are learned. They may also be particularly important as rural demographics change and communities encounter new languages, cultures, and religions; in schools, new relationships are begun, and communities can adapt and redefine their boundaries.

Rural schools also provide a measure of political influence; a school board shapes a school’s leadership and policies and, therefore, a community’s direction and future. For poor rural communities of color, these schools can serve as a counterweight to the long-lasting power of those with land and money. Rural schools offer a means of self-determination, particularly in an urban-centric political system.

To be sure, no single policy will save struggling rural communities. Rural America needs a comprehensive set of coordinated policies that support rural growth and vitality. But these policies must include preserving and protecting rural schools — first by eliminating rules and mandates that force rural school closures, and second by ensuring rural schools have the funds and resources to thrive.

Initiatives such as expanding rural employment, increasing access to rural health care, and promoting the conservation of rural land are all important to rural sustainability and, therefore, worth supporting. But without schools, they matter little — for, without a school, there is no community.

Mara Casey Tieken is an associate professor of education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. The author of Why Rural Schools Matter (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), she will offer the keynote address at the 2017 National Forum to Advance Rural Education on October 12, 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. This national event is hosted by Battelle for Kids and the National Rural Education Association, in partnership with the Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee Departments of Education. Join the conversation about the event via Twitter using #RuralEdForum.

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