Part 1 of this series highlighted former school buildings in rural upstate New York. This installment explores consolidation, the combining of two or more small school districts into one larger district, the practice that orphaned the school buildings featured in Part 1.
Underlying decisions to consolidate is the belief, not well supported by evidence, that small schools are invariably both more expensive and less effective than larger ones. Consolidation therefore is assumed to be an inevitable consequence of population loss in rural areas. And indeed, the consolations that resulted in the empty school buildings in Part 1 did result from just such population loss.
by Sue Atkinson
Why Are People Moving Away? A Short History Lesson
Why are many rural areas, especially in the northeastern United States, losing population? The easy answer is that most folks, especially young people, appear to prefer the social and economic opportunities of urban or suburban life. However, many factors have shaped those preferences over the years.
Popular legend and history textbooks tell of brave settlers on the frontier, benefitting from abundant free government land, but governmental policies have been anything but benign to rural residents and in fact have worked to create and maintain a rural underclass. From Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, when the armed forces of the new American nation were used to protect landowners’ rights to foreclose on the farms of unpaid revolutionary war veterans, to the Anti-Rent Wars in the 19th century in upstate New York, in which local resident farmers protested a feudal system of excessive land rents that dated from the days of the Dutch patroons, to crop liens in the western territories and a monetary policy that kept settlers literally “dirt poor,” business interests were consistently favored over those of rural residents.
Populism nowadays is equated in popular media with bigotry and intolerance, but in the late 19th century, the populist movement represented rural residents’ desire to shape national policy that attended to the interests of producers as well as commercial interests. After losing the battle over monetary policy, the movement dwindled, the Democratic Party turned to corporate liberalism, and farmers’ interests were abandoned.
Migration from farm to city accelerated. “The city sits like a parasite, running out its roots into the open country and draining its subsistence,” wrote Liberty Hyde Bailey, whose Cornell University-based Country Life Movement aimed to educate students about their rural heritage and connect their schooling to farm life, nature, and environmental studies. Preaching the virtues of country over city life, the movement aimed to keep the best and brightest youth as rural residents. Nevertheless, efforts to keep young people “down on the farm” were not successful, and the percentage of adults earning a living from farming shrank from 40% in 1920 to less than 2% now. Farm policies consistently supported agri-business over family farms, with huge land grants to the railroads and railroad pricing structures that favored grain-elevator operators over local distribution of crops. Artificially low commodity prices drove farmers out (in New York, dairy farming has declined as milk prices have stayed essentially the same since the 1970s) or forced larger and larger operations, with huge debt burdens that then disadvantage farmers when monetary policy favors creditors.
Rural areas continued to decline as suburban growth was subsidized, for example, by the 1956 National Defense Highway System that built interstate highways. Now, in the wake of decades of support for corporations over farmers, neoliberals “sell despotism and avarice as freedom and democracy,” in the words of poet and rural advocate Wendell Berry, as they advocate so-called choice and free-market principles that keep agricultural prices low, cause an exodus of business and jobs, and have resulted in a population drain, a brain drain, and a youth drain on rural areas.
Out-migration of 20-30 years olds from rural areas persists; young people from rural areas are more likely than urban dwellers to leave the place where they grew up and are less likely to return. Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas studied rural youth out-migration in the Midwest in the early 2000s, identifying four types of students: Approximately 40 % were working-class “stayers,” 20% they termed college bound “achievers” who left not just for college but permanently, “seekers,” the 10% who join the military as a vehicle to seeing the larger world, and the remaining 30 % “returners,” who left but eventually returned to their hometowns. Only a small percentage of these returners were professionals.
They found that adults in the community actually encouraged their most promising students to leave, simultaneously underinvesting in those who chose to stay. “The best kids go, while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation,” stated the high school’s guidance counselor in their study. High achieving students were encouraged to do well in school and were cultivated to leave, while the “stayers” viewed school as an alienating experience and entered the labor force early, with little encouragement to seek further education or training, transforming rural communities into “impoverished ghost towns,” in the words of Carr and Kefalas.
Small Towns, Fewer Kids – Is Consolidation the Answer?
Overall, small rural schools do well for children. Compared to urban school, rural schools have higher test scores, graduation rates, and teacher satisfaction, and lower rates of behavior problems and absenteeism. Small schools are safer, with less violence, less vandalism, and better attendance. And while cost per student is higher than in larger schools, the cost per high school graduate is actually lower. Considering all of this, consolidation appears to be a solution in search of a problem.
In addition to the illusory cost savings highlighted in Part 1 of this series, consolidation brings problems. Studies of students’ and families’ experience with consolidation in West Virginia found that students received less individual attention, had longer bus rides to and from school, and had fewer opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, the last a result of both increased competition for limited spots and transportation issues. Families had fewer opportunities to participate, for example as members of site -based leadership teams, and found it harder to volunteer and attend parent-teacher conferences. Especially concerning, larger district size is negatively associated with the achievement of students living in poverty.
Rural school advocates who oppose widespread consolidation efforts, such as the Rural School and Community Trust, suggest that areas with small population, rather than following the trend toward including smaller numbers of grades in a school, draw students from a wider age range in order to increase the number of students in a school building, narrow the geographic area in which they live, and cut their transportation time to and from school. They cite social and pedagogical benefits of bringing students of all ages together, as well as benefits from making the school more accessible to the community. They also recommend that schools lease surplus space that may result from lower student population to community agencies such as day care or senior centers, health care centers for students, families, and community members, and business and recreational organizations. To contain costs, as well as meet the challenge of providing secondary students with sufficient coursework, they suggest sharing services while maintaining buildings, thoughtfully planned distance education, and purchasing cooperatively. Many of the efficiencies attributed to consolidation can be realized without physically relocating children away from their communities.
Per-pupil costs are only one way of reckoning value. Ask any real estate agent: good schools enhance property values, and lack of a neighborhood school causes property values to decline. Without a local school, towns are unable to attract young families, and out-migration increases as well. Researchers found that Midwestern towns that closed their school due to consolidation lost population at a faster rate than towns that had maintained their local school. Then, as population fell, home values dropped, and businesses struggled. Once this spiral of disinvestment and decline begins, it is difficult to turn around. The school buildings featured in Part 1 will likely never house public school students again.
Part 3 of this essay looks at a defunct urban school and the different factors affecting its closure and subsequent repurposing.
Dr. V. Sue Atkinson is semi-retired from a career teaching and supervising programs for infants through high school students, working with both typically developing children and students with identified disabilities. At SUNY Binghamton and Cortland, she trained teachers to work with these students with an emphasis on inclusive teaching practices. Sue continues this work part-time and writes on topics related to education, policy, child development, and disability. Her contributions to Ragazine.CC include “When Teaching Was Fun.”