Sunday, January 14, 2007

More on Small Schools

I posted a reply to Jack Lessenberry's column putting some blame for the School Aid Fund deficit on small schools. Many of the arguments against rural school consolidation are also applicable to the current discussion about closing schools in Detroit, so I'll run it again here:

It seems that big schools, like big cars, is an idea that we keep buying even though its time has come and gone.

The big push for school consolidation started in the late 1950’s, as part of the push for better education that was sparked by the launch of Sputnik. It made sense then. Gas was less than 10 cents a gallon. New roads and interstates were being built everywhere. Education was seen as a content based commodity, so it was important to get students physically close to good libraries and teachers who had the specialized educations that were beyond the reach of smaller schools. Nobody worried about crime in schools. No one had even heard of sprawl.

Today we face a different world. In the age of the internet, memorization of acts, or housing facts in libraries, is less important. Students and teachers must become lifelong learners, adept at evaluating a constant flow of competing information. Employability depends on being adept at embracing new technologies at a record pace, on emotional intelligence and team working skills, on good work habits and a highly developed sense of personal responsibility.

In the 1990’s, the Search Institute’s research produced a list of 40 Developmental Assets essential to raising successful young people. Those of us who live in small school communities were not surprised to find that small schools have always provided many of these assets. Kids do better in intact communities.

But aren’t small schools an expensive luxury? The people at The Small Schools Project don’t think so. They cite studies that look, not just at the cost of running buses, paying staff, and keeping the lights on, but at the cost of producing an actual graduate. As schools get bigger, the dropout rate increases. Studies in both New York City and Nebraska show that the economy of scale in the larger schools disappears when measured in cost per graduate.

It makes sense to evaluate schools this way. You wouldn’t measure the efficiency of an auto plant by how many cars they tried to make; you’d want to know how many actually ran. And putting a half-built car on the scrap heap costs nothing compared to setting a high school dropout loose on the streets. If we were to factor in the societal costs of high school dropouts, small schools would win hands down.

In Michigan, consolidation is not the answer to our school funding problems. Some of our biggest districts are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and some of our smaller districts are winning awards for efficiency. Talk of consolidation only diverts attention from our real problems: the erosion of Proposal A’s tax foundation, the escalating cost of health and retiree benefits, and the overall inequity in funding.

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