“Another dramatic problem facing rural education is the issue of consolidation of schools. From Arkansas to West Virginia to Maine, small rural schools are closing in order to merge into regional schools. The assumption is that closing small schools and busing students to regional schools not only presents efficiencies of scale and cost-savings, but also provides more opportunities, including a broader curriculum with more Advanced Placement classes, for example. But many rural educators see consolidation as a disaster: Since schools are often the heart of small communities, there are devastating social implications when they are closed, including that parents and town leaders lose control and interest. Transportation becomes an enormous hurdle, literally removing access to schools, and students are forced to travel great distances to get to school. They can’t attend extracurricular activities and sports, nor can their parents easily support them.
While at the Ed School, Tompkins studied the issue of consolidation and started off as a proponent. But, in 1972, after evaluating the data, she published a critical paper, Economy, Efficiency, Equality: The Myths of Rural School Consolidation (later expanded into a book cowritten with colleagues). Since then, her opposition has only grown.
“My research still holds up,” says Tompkins. “Bigger is not better, smaller is not cheaper, and rural people are not too dumb to run their schools. Those are the three myths that undergird school consolidation. It hasn’t saved a lot of money; it just hasn’t lived up to its billing.” She adds, “I do think people believe there are efficiencies and economies, but nobody goes in to look afterward to figure out, were there any savings? There’s almost no research on that.” Perhaps the best data, she says, comes from a series of articles published in 2002 in the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, which found that despite the state spending $1 billion on consolidation and closing more than 300 schools since 1990, no hard savings were achieved, there were more administrators than before, and the promise of more and better courses was never met.
The push for rural consolidation is all the stranger given the movement in urban areas toward smaller schools, including charter schools, so that classroom sizes are smaller and there is more accountability among students, parents, and administrators. “Our general view is, the more adults you have in positions of influence like school boards and planning committees, the more adults engaged in learning about and understanding public education, the better off you are,” says Tompkins. “And the centralizing kinds of strategies really undermine the community support for learning.”
Adds Tieken, “Schools are very much a part of the identity, the meeting place, the heart and soul of a community. If you ask them, ‘What if you lose your school?’ they say, ‘We lose our identity.’” Some of this concern is economically related, in that the loss of a school can cause people to move and businesses to shut down.”
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