When governments are looking to save money, they often turn to school closures as the answer, as has been seen in every Australian state and territory in recent years. It is a worldwide phenomenon. It has been going on in many states and school districts in the United States in the last few years.
Arguments for consolidation, which merges schools or districts and centralizes their management, rest primarily on two presumed benefits: fiscal efficiency and higher educational quality. These two basic arguments were put forward, for example, by the ACT Government in support of its proposal to close 39 schools in 2006.
A report published recently by the National Education Policy Centre in the United States concludes that contemporary research does not support claims about these presumed benefits of district and school consolidation. It says that the assumptions behind such claims “are most often dangerous oversimplifications” [p.11].
The report concludes that the research evidence offers remarkable little support for the proposition that reducing the number of schools and districts will reduce administrative costs. It also says that the idea that offering a greater variety of courses equates with expanding opportunities for students is also contradicted by the evidence.
Research on the effects of contemporary consolidation suggests that new consolidation is likely to result in neither greater efficiency nor better instructional outcomes—especially when it results from state policy that implements large-scale forced consolidation. [p.8]
The available research comparing pre- and post-school expenditures shows that district consolidation does not on average reduce educational expenditures. Indeed, studies report increased costs, as operational budgets are affected by diseconomies of scale resulting from increased expenditures for transportation, operation, management and supervision, security, and guidance.
Related research shows that the likely result of making schools or districts larger through consolidation is more nuanced, indicating that efficiencies can be achieved in some expenditure areas and for certain types of schools or districts, but also suggesting caution for policymakers pursuing consolidation in the hope of cutting costs.
School consolidation also often fails to deliver the promised enhancement of academic offerings. Even when consolidation does produce a wider menu of educational experiences for students, evidence suggests that large school and district size negatively affects desirable academic outcomes.
The report notes that a sizable body of research investigating school size has consistently found larger size (after moving beyond the smallest schools) to be associated with reduced rates of student participation in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, more dangerous school environments, lower graduation rates, lower achievement levels for impoverished students, and larger achievement gaps related to poverty, race, and gender.
A particular finding is that larger district and school size is negatively associated with the achievement of impoverished students. While the evidence is largely correlational rather than causative, the studies show that large schools often exhibit these negative trends and that the correlations are largest for the most impoverished students.
The overall pattern is nonetheless clearly negative and is sufficient to raise serious doubts that substantial benefits will accrue from making a given school or district larger—especially in terms of academic outcomes for poor and minority students. [p.9]
…low-wealth and minority populations tend to be inordinately and negatively affected by consolidation initiatives. [p.10]
The report finds that econometric (and financial, it must be said) studies of district and school consolidation tend not to include the value of important educational contingencies such as extra-curricular participation rates, parental involvement, and community support – all of which are features of small schools. Econometric, and financial, studies of district and school consolidation can be faulted for underestimating these costs.
One very recent school-size study that directly linked the effects of changes in school size to student achievement in Indiana found that increasing the size of elementary schools (partly by school consolidations) lowered student achievement significantly, with a predictable future economic cost that far outweighed the marginal fiscal savings of sustaining smaller schools.
The influence of school and district consolidations on the vitality and well-being of communities may be the most dramatic result, if the one least often discussed by politicians or education leaders. The loss of a school erodes a community’s social and economic base—its sense of community, identity and democracy—and the loss permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment.
The comparative silence surrounding this issue is likely the result of its frequent rural character—the block of affected voters is both numerically small and politically and economically insignificant. [p.9]
As an example of these effects, the report cites an extensive account of West Virginia students and their families, for example, depicts the experience as inflicting considerable harm. After the school consolidation (closures), students attended larger schools where they received less individual attention, endured longer bus rides to and from school (and hence longer days), and had fewer opportunities to participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities (a result of both increased competition for limited spots and transportation issues).
Families’ experiences included fewer opportunities to participate in formal school governance roles (as members of site-based leadership teams, for example) and increased barriers to participating informally in their children’s education. Increased travel time, for example, proved a barrier to volunteering, visiting classrooms, and taking part in parent-teacher conferences.
The report makes the following recommendations to policymakers:
• Closely question claims about presumed benefits of consolidation in their state. What reason is there to expect substantial improvements, given that current research suggests that savings for taxpayers, fiscal efficiencies, and curricular improvements are unlikely?
• Avoid state-wide mandates for consolidation and steer clear of minimum sizes for schools and districts. These always prove arbitrary and often prove unworkable.
• Consider other measures to improve fiscal efficiency or educational services. Examples include cooperative purchasing agreements among districts, combined financial services, enhanced roles for educational service agencies, state regulations that take account of the needs of small districts and schools, recruitment and retention of experienced teachers for low-wealth districts, distance learning options for advanced subjects in small rural schools, smaller class sizes for young students, and effective professional development programs.
• Investigate de-consolidation as a means of improving fiscal efficiency and improving learning outcomes.
These are all good questions for school communities around Australia to ask as governments continue to push school closures and amalgamations to pursue illusory financial savings.
Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. 2011. Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means. National Education Policy Center, Boulder, Colorado.