Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Benefits of school consolidation rarely match promises

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When ideas get lodged in our heads, it can be tough to shake them loose, even when there’s plentiful data that argues to the contrary. Take the notion that bigger is better in education. It’s the theory behind the push by some Iron Range policymakers to create one giant East Range school district, or something equivalent, through an as-yet-undetermined administrative collaboration, like the one currently being forced upon the St. Louis County School District.

As we’ve been reporting for more than a year, ISD 2142 and the Mt. Iron-Buhl School District have been negotiating an administrative collaboration as part of the promise MI-B officials made to the IRRRB in order to obtain bonding assistance for a new school. The money is coming from a new fund that lawmakers created in 2015 to encourage further school consolidation in the region.

For years, lawmakers in St. Paul have used various means to encourage consolidation, in the theory that it saves money, provides more opportunity for students, and boosts student achievement. We’ve seen plenty of consolidation as a result, but very few of the promised benefits.

Given the frequency of school consolidation, you might expect that researchers have thoroughly studied its impacts— but you’d be wrong. What studies are out there suggest that consolidation can save districts money on administration, although there’s not much evidence of that locally. The St. Louis County School District was originally created as an administrative umbrella for a number of small, rural schools, in the hope that it would reduce administrative costs. It’s not clear that this really happened, however. On a per-pupil basis, the district’s administrative costs are still well above the statewide average, and frequently above those experienced in much smaller districts. If consolidated districts can avoid the growth of an administrative bureaucracy, they can cut costs, but that’s frequently difficult to do in the public sector, particularly in education. Bureaucratic school districts can be just as costly to administer and be far more resistant to more useful reforms. It’s clear that when it comes to size and efficiency, there is a sweet spot when school districts have sufficient students to pay for the administration that all districts need without becoming overly bureaucratic.

As for student performance, the research has found mixed results from consolidation and a strongly negative result for students affected by school closures due to consolidation.

On the Iron Range, consolidations over the years have demonstrated no appreciable gains in student achievement. Test scores at most area schools bounce up and down from year-to-year, reflecting little more than statistical noise.

So the next time you hear that schools should consolidate for the “sake of the kids,” keep in mind there’s no evidence that the kids stand to gain in the least. For most, it just means a longer bus ride, more students packed into the classroom, and more competition for a starting slot on the basketball team.

The notion that bigger schools provide more course offerings might have made sense 20 years ago, but given the explosion of quality online courses available to students of all ages these days, it’s an argument that no longer makes much sense. We talk about preparing students for the future, so why are we still using educational models that harken back to the mid-20th century? In the real world, students today get virtually all of their information digitally. These days, there’s no excuse for schools that don’t take advantage of all that’s available on the web to expand the offerings available to students, and do so in a way that provides truly individualized learning plans for students. Doing so doesn’t require a bigger school. In fact, the region’s smallest high school, Vermilion Country School, the local charter school in Tower, has been successfully using this approach since it opened four years ago in a renovated manufacturing facility. And, by the way, Vermilion Country has shown the most significant gains in student achievement in reading and math over those four years of any school in the area. For full disclosure, I was one of the school’s founders, although I don’t take any credit for the school’s success in boosting student achievement.

So why the continued push for consolidation? In many cases, it’s simply conventional wisdom. When you’re told something frequently enough, you simply accept it as true. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. In many cases, consolidation is pushed by special interests, such as consultants, engineering firms, large contractors, and the building trades, who are often tapped for the studies, strategic plans, and large capital projects that frequently go hand-in hand with consolidation efforts. School districts are like enormous ATMs for many in the private sector, and that’s particularly true as school districts and the challenges they face grow larger, requiring ever more advice from outside “experts.” These purported experts are often well connected politically, and they’re happy to foster the conventional wisdom surrounding consolidation and its supposed benefits. It’s hardly surprising that their efforts influence the thinking of legislators.

Consolidation, in effect, has a large and powerful constituency— and “the kids” don’t have much to do with it, despite the rhetoric you might hear.

Before Iron Range lawmakers put up more money for school consolidation in our region, they should first take the time to determine if the benefits justify the costs. They might discover that putting up millions of dollars to push consolidation is a poor investment, particularly when you consider the sense of loss and identity that consolidation frequently places on communities. If legislators want to help schools build new facilities, which appears to be the real motivation behind these funds, they should do it without the strings attached.

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