A New Vision for Small Schools

If you live in a small town, you know the school is a centerpiece of the community. The two small schools I know best have been on my mind a lot lately.

The first is Laurens-Marathon, a consolidated school in Iowa. I graduated from there. The second is Lyons-Decatur, the consolidated school here in the Center’s home town. Both are under pressure to merge again, becoming parts of even larger districts.

For rural people, it is a familiar story. These two districts themselves are the result of consolidation. We have heard the arguments on both sides a dozen times.

Proponents of community-based schools cite small classes, quality education, and local engagement as reasons to keep schools open. Those arguing for consolidation cite efficiency, increased class offerings, and long-term enrollment trends.

I’m not interested in rehashing those arguments. They are as well-rehearsed as consolidation itself. Instead, it is time to work together to re-envision what is possible for our schools. We don’t know all of the answers, but we do believe in the ingenuity of rural people.

That is why we want to hear from you. Write to me and share the innovative approaches your small school has taken to remain vibrant. We’ll report back. By sharing strategies we can pioneer new models that keep schools operating.

The goal should be to do right by our students, offering world-class education, and do right by our communities. It is a dual goal. I believe we can do both.

We know this effort will require local boards and superintendents who are willing to be innovative. It will require community members who are committed to the districts.

It will also require policymakers who respond to the needs of small districts. For too long policy has contained an implicit bias toward bigness. Funding formulas starve small districts until they collapse in the arms of a slightly larger neighbor. Then the combined district begins to suffer the same fate.
The model of repeated consolidation is reaching practical limits. In too many places the time spent driving to and from school exceeds the time spent in a typical class. This extracts a steep toll on students and communities.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Funding formulas are the result of choices we make, and we can make different choices.

For instance, several states reward small schools. Oregon recently established a small school fund for schools with fewer than 350 students. Texas sends extra money to districts that exceed 300 square miles. Both are examples of policymakers recognizing that small schools are different. 

The familiar story is about consolidation. Let’s work together to write a new story.

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