Sample Researched Argument

Rural Education Reform: Factual Refutations of Pro-Consolidation Arguments

While school consolidation has been a heated topic in educational circles for many years, research has answered very few pertinent questions and succeeded only in raising many more. Data addressing the specific aspects of consolidation has proven confusing, as the results show significant benefits in some areas, but dramatic disadvantages in others. Few researchers have attempted to address the complexities of the situation and its consequences as a whole, and many have failed to accurately portray even parts of the circumstances surrounding the issue. Further research and a comparison of empirical evidence suggests that contrary to the promises of consolidation advocates and legislators, the consolidation of rural schools is rarely beneficial to the students, community, and local economy.

The consolidation movement began in the mid 1800’s as the response to a study claiming that rural schools were less efficient than their urban counterparts (Deiber 4-8). Consolidation began as an effort to improve the efficiency of school facilities as well as the quality of education and availability of resources in rural areas (Anderson 14-15). An underlying goal in the movement however, was the trend toward the industrialization and urbanization of America – including the Midwest. As part of this economic movement, professionals preyed on small, rural schools with propitious arguments of economy and efficiency. Another aspect of the consolidation trend was the desire of administrative professionals to gain power and authority in rural areas. A final blow to rural schools was the promised state funding and financial incentives for consolidated schools. Because small, rural schools simply could not compete with the finances and resources of the larger schools, they were forced to consolidate (Sher and Tompkins 36-38). Currently, consolidation efforts are still underway, leading to the reorganization of more and more rural districts and the displacement of students from their communities.

Perhaps the most common argument that has been used to advocate school consolidation is that of economies of scale. The principle of economies of scale originates in the studies of business and economics and is used to determine production efficiency in relation to cost. This principle states that as the size of a company increases, the cost of production per unit decreases. Thus, bigger is better when it comes to production and economic efficiency. Because schools, like companies, have a relationship between average cost and the number of units produced, in this case students, it would be logical to apply economies of scale to schools. James Streifel reports that “When comparing smaller with larger high schools in Iowa, it was determined that larger schools spent less per pupil for the same quality of education” (14). This means that the educational production of small schools is sadly inefficient compared to that of large schools. Given this information, it appears as though school consolidation and district mergers would benefit the local economy (Tholkes and Sederburg 10).

Another argument in support of consolidation is that students in larger schools have greater access to academic resources, which contribute to greater student achievement and future success. Support for this perspective comes from studies which claim that students are more likely to be offered advanced courses in a larger school, and that teachers in those schools are better equipped with current, effective curriculum. Consolidation advocates stress the importance of these advanced courses to future student success in post-secondary academics and careers. Their theory is that through the availability of advanced courses, students of larger schools are better prepared for college than students in small, rural schools (National School Boards Association, as cited in Anderson 20). Therefore, the logical conclusion is that district consolidation would be directly beneficial, or even essential, to overall student achievement (Anderson 19-21).

While these arguments appear to be inherently valid and have convinced educators to agree for decades, a further exploration of their structure proves otherwise. Recent research has suggested that these arguments may not be as valid as they appear, leading a growing number of educators to question the wisdom of consolidation. Until Roger Barker and Paul Gump in the mid-nineteen hundreds, few people had made significant efforts to question the truth behind these claims, but Barker and other early researchers quickly discovered a lack of substantial foundation in support of school consolidation (Streifel 1). David Reynolds writes:

The logic of school consolidation/reorganization has always entailed a simple spatial logic. It assumes that the primary determinants of educational quality are school size, the extent to which the curriculum is determined by professionals, and the amount of revenue available for expenditure. It also assumes that all three of these in turn are directly and positively related to the size and territorial extent of school districts. (246)

In essence, revenue and academic quality make up the foundation of the consolidation movement. Thus, one must only prove that these are not positively related to an increase in school size, and the entire argument will collapse. By understanding the structure of the argument for consolidation, it becomes easier to address false correlations, but in order to accurately evaluate both sides of the consolidation issue, it is imperative to address each argument as it stands and determine its validity on the same grounds that it was built.

The “economies of scale” argument is accurate, but incomplete. In order to be valid, the argument for economies of scale must be considered in conjunction with the inevitable increase of costs due to a greater scale of operations, or “diseconomies of scale” (Sher and Tomkins 5).  There is a certain point in any operational facility, where total revenue (TR) no longer surpasses total cost (TC).  This is often referred to as the “margin”. At this point, output (Q) is at its maximum. Any attempted increase in output past this point results in a simultaneous drop in total revenue and increase in total cost (see Table 1). Thus, increased production is ineffective and inefficient past this point, as the only way to prevent an increase in cost is to lessen the quality of the product. To put it another way,

If well-educated students are the desired output, faculty/staff and yet to be educated students may be considered to be inputs. The school system may be considered a method of production. As yet to be educated students are added to the system, faculty and staff must also be added. Up to a point known as the ‘margin’, additional inputs result in greater output at lower cost. Once the margin is crossed additional inputs result in lower cost effectiveness and may lessen the quality of the product. (Anderson 22)

This is what occurs most commonly in consolidated schools. Either more staff is added, which decreases cost effectiveness; or the teacher to student ratio increases, which substantially lowers the quality of education received by the students (Tholkes and Sederburg 13).

The greatest increased cost due to consolidation is most often transportation. This seemingly insignificant cost category usually negates most (if not all) actual savings. Many administrators fail to accurately estimate the scale of increased cost in transportation. The reason that this expense category is so much greater in large schools is that they must transport more students from a vast area. In rural areas, this becomes an especially significant problem because there is less student density per square mile. This means that the buses must travel farther for the transportation of fewer students, resulting in higher fuel and maintenance cost without enough extra students to offset the increased cost-per-student expenditure. Because of this, transportation costs quickly eclipse any realized savings as a result of consolidation and reduce overall functioning efficiency of the facility. The only way that transportation cost would not outweigh gained economies of scale is if there is a high student density per square mile. Unfortunately, the majority of rural land is uninhabited fields, which results in an unfavorably low ratio of students per square mile (Sher and Tompkins 10-14). It is more economically efficient, then, for small schools to remain separate and transport the students that are in their district, rather than going out of their way to reach students in outlying areas.

In addition to the lack of actual savings due to supposed economies of scale, there are other economic factors in support of rural schools over consolidation. Small rural schools have been found to be more efficient than large schools in several ways. In a research study organized by Butler and Monk in 1985, their results showed that “small schools showed greater economies of scale in that enrollment increases in small districts were associated with smaller cost increases than was the case in large districts” (Tholkes and Sederburg 13). Small schools also appear to consistently provide quality education for equal to or less than the amount of cost per pupil found in larger schools. This implies that small schools are actually more efficient than large schools, in which case consolidation would not be beneficial to the local economy, but unnecessary and even detrimental.

Having observed these arguments and discussed their validity, there remains one situation in which consolidation would be financially beneficial. Tholkes and Sederburg acknowledge that the application of the economies of scale principle could be advantageous “in cases where there was a compact geographical area and dilapidated existing facilities.” (13)  In other words, if the schools are both central to the student population and the facilities are in disrepair, then it would be beneficial to combine the schools and pool resources. This proves, however, no foundation for the consolidation of the thousands of schools that do not fit these criteria. Providing that this study is primarily concerned with the consolidation of schools in rural areas, virtually none of them qualify – simply because student density is almost impossible to control. Thus, the claim stands that consolidation is not overall financially beneficial.

Despite the growing doubt regarding the capacity of small, rural schools to provide an adequate, quality education for their students, researchers have been unable to find a substantial or consistent relationship between increased school size and student achievement (Anderson 22). Rather, if there is any correlation at all, then what exists favors smaller schools over larger schools. Adams and Foster claim that “[r]esearchers have demonstrated inverse relationships between size and academic quality” (5). This information alone should be enough to cause educators and legislators to question whether consolidation efforts are actually hindering the academic success of students.

Herbert Cox provides further support for this theory in his essay “The Effect of a Smaller Learning Community on Students in a Large High School,” “Smaller Learning communities…have a substantial impact on the retention of students, as well as on student achievement” (21). If this is true of small communities within a larger school, it is probable that it can also be applied to rural schools, which are “small communities” in and of themselves. Researchers Summers and Wolfe also found that smaller schools produced higher achievement results regardless of education level in terms of grade (qtd. in Sher and Tompkins 27). The reality is that many studies have proven small schools to be equal or superior to large schools in the area of academic achievement (Anderson 22).

On the other hand, the student achievement argument hinges on the assumptions that larger schools actually offer advanced courses, students take the advanced courses, and students actually learn more from those courses. Regardless of the debate over the effectiveness of advanced placement courses, the irony is that when these courses are offered, a smaller percentage of students actually enroll in these courses. A study performed by Barker and Gump revealed that while students in large schools had more opportunities to take a variety of classes, they actually participated in fewer classes and varieties than students of small schools (65-68).If very few students are even enrolling in the advanced courses, then the majority of the student body is not benefitting from their availability any more than a student at a rural school “suffers” from the lack of that same resource. There has also been recent debate over the effectiveness of advanced courses in providing better preparation for post-secondary education. However, if very few students are even taking those courses, then the argument over whether or not these courses are effective becomes almost irrelevant.

Other than greater economic efficiency and academic achievement, small, rural schools have several qualities that are rarely found in larger schools. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that “parents whose children attend smaller schools were more likely to be involved with and committed to the school” (Henderson, 1987, as cited in Anderson 21). This parental involvement and community support is critical to the academic development of students and appears to lead to greater achievement, lower drop-out rates, and increased graduation rates. In their study on family and school connections in rural areas, Semke and Sheridan state that “[p]arental participation and cooperation in children’s educational experiences is positively related to important student outcomes” (21). If this is true, then educators should do everything that they can to respect and support community and family influences in their schools and avoid reforms such as consolidation, which may interfere with these necessary connections.

Another critical discovery supporting small schools is that students of these schools have higher attendance rates and participate in more extracurricular activities. “Barker and Gump found that students in small schools and districts participated more in extracurricular activities and, therefore, exhibited better self-concepts…than their peers in larger settings” (Adams and Foster 837). This phenomenon holds true for many social settings. It appears that the larger the group, the less people feel inclined to be involved or participate. Likewise, their review of data comparing participation rates in a variety of both large and small behavior settings consistently showed that students of small schools participate in a wider variety of both interschool and extracurricular activities and events (Barker and Gump 35, 65-93).

Finally, small, rural schools have been proven to have consistently less violence and lower crime rates. According to the U. S. Department of Education, larger schools have higher rates of violence and crime than small schools (1999, cited in Anderson 25). Most educators who oppose the consolidation movement claim that increased social issues are not worth the minute advantages of increased school size (Anderson 23). This is only one of the social advantages of small schools, which is inevitably disrupted when schools are forced to consolidate. This instability is disruptive to students’ ability to focus and has the potential to interfere with their safety and social development.

Many communities have taken their cases to court in order to fight consolidation. Very few, however, have attempted to refute the actual arguments for consolidation. They chose instead to present the benefits of family and community connections to local and rural education. In many cases their attempts have failed because their arguments against consolidation were not strong enough to compete with the arguments of the consolidation advocates. By refuting the validity of pro-consolidation arguments, a level playing field is created upon which one can begin to build the argument against consolidation based on community support, lower crime rates, and other advantages (Dayton 142-148). Until someone challenges their assertions, they will continue to be blindly accepted and consolidation efforts will remain unquestioned (Sher and Tompkins 38-39). For example, Anderson claims that “[l]egislators often see reorganization of school districts as a way to save scarce and valuable state funds” (17). If they are concerned about funding, it should be brought to their attention that consolidation would be an ineffective strategy. Then they can turn to alternative strategies.

In situations where legislators are enforcing consolidation as a solution to financial struggles, it would be highly beneficial to seek better alternatives and funding. According to David C. Thompson in his article “Consolidation of Rural Schools: Reform or Relapse”:

Economic problems should not be resolved at the expense of educational opportunity, if for no other reason than skimping on education refuels a cycle of economic and social incapacity. For rural poor schools such as those in the four-state region, consolidation efforts must be undertaken with considerable caution because one set of disadvantages may simply be traded for a different set as instructional expenses are exchanged for transportation costs…it must be remembered that the role a state plays in defining and supporting educational quality is the critical element in educational opportunity. To ensure equal opportunity, rural children must be served where they are found. (211)

Basically, Thompson is admonishing educators and administrators to prioritize the provision of a quality education for every child over the cost of providing that education.  They should attempt to gain funding benefits from all other sources before turning to consolidation as a solution.

The most effective financial alternative to consolidation is to bring in outside resources. This can be done through regionalizing course-specific programs or sharing specialized teachers between schools. The latter would ensure a maintained quality of education while cutting the salary burden in half for each school (Sher and Tompkins 41). Other ways to gain funding involve legal intervention and tiresome litigation, but can prove to be very effective in the end.  Educators must make their state and the nation as a whole aware of the fact that the lack of taxable base in rural areas places them at an automatic deficit regarding state funding and the provision of resources (Sher and Tompkins). If more legislators could be made aware of this, then great strides could be made toward the funding of rural schools and the financing of teacher and curriculum programs (Dayton 142-148).

There have been some situations in which consolidation has been necessary or forced, but most administrators have been unprepared and incapable of executing a smooth transition. In these situations, it is critical that the participating schools and communities cooperate in order to make the consolidation process more effective while striving to preserve local support. Discussing the importance of communication to the process of consolidation in a rural district in Iowa, a school board member remarked, “We put together a group of school board members and administrators from both districts and we met on a monthly basis, more often if needed. We covered different topics that we felt were going to be a concern for us if we moved into consolidation.” By working together throughout the process and anticipating potential difficulties in certain areas, the districts were better able to consolidate successfully and avoid heated debates within the community (Anderson 51-52).

Having weighed the evidence, it is sadly obvious that most attempts to use consolidation as a means to provide equal educational opportunity for all students have failed (Reynolds 234). It appears that in order to ensure this desired “educational equality,” rural students must indeed “be served where they are found” (Thompson 211). After looking at both sides of the argument and discussing various aspects of empirical literature, it is clear that the consolidation of rural schools is rarely beneficial to the students, community, and local economy. Therefore, educators should seek alternative measures to ensure quality education and appropriate school funding, and whenever possible, rural schools should be allowed to function within their original communities.