[imgcontainer left] [img:schooldistricts.gif] Any benefits from school district consolidation should have been obtained long before now. Most consolidation happened more than two generations ago. Today, the top 100 school districts educate half of all America’s students. [/imgcontainer]

Belief in the benefits of school and district consolidation has been an article of faith for 100 years. But why?  

Americans, more than any other people on earth, have believed that bigger is better.  Bigger nation. Bigger cars.  Bigger houses.  Bigger farms.  Bigger banks and insurance companies (more people now see where this leads). The belief even affects our bodies in very measurable ways: taller, heavier.  

We take bigger very seriously. It has, indeed, become mythic to us. (We use that word here as French literary critic Roland Barthes used it — to indicate a common tendency to think of something as God-given, as if it were part of the natural order of things). In thinking about all this, it is important to remember that myths have real effects and real purpose.

Manifest Destiny in American Schooling

Myths may not be strictly true, but they work because they sum things up for us; they represent real commitments. On the other hand, truth hasn’t mattered that much.  Truth is more difficult, and — at least in education — it’s a moving target.  School consolidation in 2010 poses different challenges and confronts a reality very different from that of 1910, when consolidation first began to be advertised as a universal solution to the problems of schooling that then prevailed. But the myth that bigger is better carries on.

Historically, both politicians and education “leaders” have argued that bigger schools would create more resources (money, teachers, administration, buildings, books) and give students “equality of educational opportunity.” It hasn’t worked out too well.  

The nation has much larger schools and much larger districts. The 500 largest school districts enroll 43% of all American students. That leaves 17,453 to teach the remainder.  With those 500 as the bigger-is-best standard, it almost sounds like we ought to consolidate all schools into just 1,000 districts and be done with it.

Such thinking and the commitments behind it are grounded in the ideology of American economic expansion, and, with schooling, consolidation has operated with the force of another myth — manifest destiny.  

The nation’s leaders are of course big supporters of this ideology, from Teddy Roosevelt through Barack Obama (as judged by his education policy at least, which is difficult to distinguish from that of his predecessors). In education, another president, Harvard president James Conant, argued in 1959 that no high school should enroll fewer than 400 students—if we wanted to beat the Russians, that is.  

We think that before considering creating still larger schools and districts, citizens ought to think harder about the meaning of economic success and the purposes of educational achievement. Perhaps we should consider E.F. Schumaker’s view that “small is beautiful” or Paul Theobald’s take on virtue as an alternative to success.

Do we really want to believe that an institution can be “too big to fail”?  That cheap energy sources will keep cheap products on shelves for 20 billion people (all as tall and heavy as contemporary Americans)? We guess many people will say, “Sure!”  

We sure don’t.

The desired benefits of consolidation (graded schools, special teachers, professional administration, and solid buildings) have long ago been realized.  Now research suggests that impoverished communities benefit from smaller schools and districts and will suffer negative outcomes if more consolidation occurs.  At the very least consolidation arguments need grounding in empirical evidence rather than distorted claims of efficiency.

Reading the Evidence

Our myths have origins, not only in conventional ideology but in how findings get reported in the press, and then get passed by word of mouth among politicians and education leaders—for whom reading the full studies and struggling to understand what’s being said is (understandably, and regrettably) too much work. We want to retrieve some of the contingencies, nuances, and limitations of research into school consolidation — and to provide a responsible interpretation. 

Admittedly, the handmaidens and valets of scientific doubt (all those contingencies, nuances, limitations) bore the hell out of ordinary people. By contrast, dramatic findings make good stories. But it’s the slip between the lip (findings) and cup (what’s written) that too often tends to support myths and myth-making. Nuance gets in the way, and the media reports (even in the more responsible newspapers) overstate the findings.

Consolidation has visited its effects on rural communities for almost 200 years (the first recorded law case about consolidation was heard, in fact, in 1819 in Massachusetts).  In all those years, hardly any research has been conducted to evaluate the claims made about its benefits, particularly with before and after studies. 

The claims have been wild, of course, and the closures and consolidations furious. Improved administration, improved curriculum, improved teaching, improved learning, even improved communities and an improved nation have all been claimed. So many aspirations, so little evidence! Apparently the point was always to get it done, no matter what.  

Ninety percent of American districts were put out of existence over the course of the 20th century. The consolidations also cut by 90% citizens’ most effective participation (via the schools boards also eliminated) in educational policy and practice. Some observers in rural circles believe this to have been the real goal, especially in areas where consolidation has allowed for excluding low wealth communities and people of color from decision-making processes. After all, the “professionalization” of schooling has been espoused as necessary for 100 years, and professionalization means pushing out the influence of nonprofessionals. 

What the Research Really Says About Consolidation

The research base, however, has developed somewhat in recent years.  But because of how “boring” research actually is, misinterpretation runs rampant with actual findings, and this appears to be the case with the recent studies.

The sound-bite is that consolidation will save money!  And that’s all politicians need to know when they want to show the public that they are “doing something” about the economic crisis whose effects are now unspooling in state budgets. Close schools, combine districts: it’s efficient; bigger is better in education, just like in industry and finance 

The recent research has been advertised as justifying consolidation.  That’s a misrepresenation, however. Nuances and contingencies are extremely important, so here they are:

1. Per-pupil savings accrue by closing only the smallest districts. Overall, therefore, a state’s not going to save much money.

2. Savings accrue differently for different operations. Busing, food-service, instruction, administration:  all different.  Not simple.  And state contexts — geography, history, politics, economics, and education regulations — vary dramatically, affecting the variability and the bottom-line costs of these operations. 

3. Maximum efficiency is realized in school districts of about 3,000 students.  Larger districts accrue diseconomies of scale, and above 15,000 students the diseconomies are significant. 

[imgcontainer] [img:schoolsstudents.gif] We’ve gained students and lost schools in a century-long experiment in larger schools where few people bothered to check the results. [/imgcontainer]

The really big news, at least from the standpoint of affection for rural communities, is that deconsolidation is far, far more likely to “produce significant savings” statewide than is closing a few more rural districts and schools.  Most of the nation’s schoolkids are housed in gigantic districts—far, far larger than 3,000 students with the ones enrolling a large plurality of students far, far larger even than 15,000 students.

Deconsolidation is a very interesting idea, and a followup article in the Yonder will consider the pithy issue of diseconomies in public schooling, with implications for rural communities.  Some mostly rural states maintain districts that are indeed very large. And some large-district states have predictably created large rural districts.

Human Scale and Social Class

In the rural context, the push for consolidation is not just about ill-informed efforts by policymakers to save money or improve instruction. It’s also about class and about scale. 

Consolidation is billed, misleadingly, as a solution to financial or academic distress. A set of districts and schools is identified for consolidation. Then the fur flies.

Some communities get their names stricken from the original list. In this way, the school and districts on which consolidation is actually and finally imposed (that is, after the dust settles and after some of the scheduled closures are stymied) are most often no more costly or low-performing than most other schools (and communities) in a particular state. That was the situation with recent closures in Arkansas, for instance. 

Why then are small rural schools and communities singled out and targeted for a policy action that offers little potential for addressing the real issues but almost certain potential for doing harm? One reasonable conclusion is that the smaller scale of these rural communities and limited social and political capital  makes them a more viable target for policymakers who need to do something about the issues. Fewer people = fewer voters, fewer political donors, fewer taxpayers, and all the better if those being consolidated are poor, our of the way and, in many parts of the country, non-white.

Here’s how these dynamics play out in real-time. A state is faced with mounting pressures over the cost of public education and the need to improve educational outcomes. Most states are now in this position—a perfect storm of frenzied actions to raise achievement and cut expenditures. Large corporations and the Chamber of Commerce demand the action. Angst prevails in state houses. 

Politicians’ staffers get hold of the idea that consolidating and closing schools will save money and raise student achievement. They’ve heard the claims and read think-tank reports. 

(For instance, here is a report, backed by the Brookings Institution, that calls for the closure of one-third of Ohio’s 611 school districts as part of a plan to “restore prosperity.” The claims Brookings makes for savings are clearly premature and don’t stand up to what’s already known.)

It’s a tough sell, though, among the voting public: People don’t like having their communities disrupted, having their kids endure longer bus rides, being shut out of participating in school governance, losing their sports teams, and being farther away from extracurricular activities. In rural places, distance counts; in largely urban states, politicians in the state house don’t get it. And neither do their corporate sponsors. 

This could be the kind of reform initiative that could cost some politicians their jobs, particularly if the initiative is implemented in a way that negatively impacts large numbers of people or people who actively participate in electoral politics (e.g., through donating money) or who otherwise possess political clout (e.g., through personal or business relationships). In short, except as an exception, closures are not actually going to happen in small, affluent suburban districts. 

[imgcontainer] [img:districtsize.gif] The average size of school districts varies from state to state. [/imgcontainer]

Rural communities in most states don’t have that kind of clout; rather, their populations are smaller and are characterized by higher rates of poverty (as in West Virginia and Kentucky). In states where consolidation has been successfully implemented, these districts have higher rates of minorities and English Language Learners (ELLs). And so, with the threats from voters reduced, imposing consolidation on rural schools and communities is a safe, and rarely punished choice for doing the expected something. 

Deconsolidation Instead

Consolidation is now politics carried on by other means. At one time, in a modernizing and urbanizing nation, it seemed to some educators a progressive maneuver. It would “professionalize” the teachers and administrators. It would deliver more specialists to more students. It would improve efficiency and perhaps effectiveness.

Consolidation certainly is associated with more inputs, but tracing the causality is a mess. More inputs may have caused consolidation, rather than the other way round.  The profession of education has been established, but it is more seriously and concertedly under attack now than ever.  Improved effectiveness is also uncertain, and the existing evidence tends to support the effectiveness of smaller schools, just as the cost-efficiency studies tend not to support districts that are very large at all. 

Our research leads us to commend these cautions to policymakers considering school consolidation: 

Big savings won’t materialize as a result of consolidation, so don’t count on it.

Consolidation might be a one-off option, but it’s not a good statewide mandate.

Consider deconsolidation instead. It might work better.

The authors are professors at the Patton School of Education and Human Services at Ohio University. Their next article will consider alternatives to consolidation and what those alternatives would mean for rural schools.

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