Steve Anderson | March 7, 2016
Ideas for Keeping Oklahoma's Rural Schools Open
Every budget crunch brings another call for consolidation of Oklahoma school districts and the pushback from rural residents and their legislators. We can expect more of the same in this year’s legislative session.
It is difficult for those in urban areas, especially when they look at the high per-pupil expenditures necessary to keep some rural schools open, to understand the ire that is raised in rural communities by the “consolidation” movement. However, there is much more to this than meets the casual observer’s eye. The solution will not be found in dividing into rural-versus-urban camps, which typically happens when the “c” word is mentioned at the state capitol.
Rural residents realize that consolidation often means not just closing their local school but driving the final nail in the coffin of their town’s existence. They lose control of their children’s education when they lose their school boards upon consolidation. Adding insult to injury, they then put their children on bus rides that in some cases can result in hours spent en route to and from the new school.
I have seen the effects of consolidation in my home state of Kansas when the “one school district per county” movement gained momentum in the 1960s. Since those closures the towns which lost their schools largely disappeared. Yet there was no sign that the financial situation improved for the consolidated school that remained to justify the damage done to those communities or the long bus rides for those children living at the edges of the county.
Consolidations are sold to the voting public generally with two major points: (1) cost savings from economies of scale, and (2) better educational opportunities in larger school settings. Both of these are flawed assumptions on examination. The result of the Kansas consolidation was that there was not a cost savings as transportation costs of gathering students from such a wide area ate up the economies of scale that were gained by closing the smaller schools. The larger-school-equals-better-education argument is also unpersuasive. Go to SchoolDigger.com, for example, and look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for Oklahoma high schools. The nine top-scoring schools average less than 75 students per school, and all are rural (with one exception).
However, the reality is that there is only so much funding available in a tight budget year, and it is time to be proactive in providing solutions that can keep rural schools open. Changes in structure and how schools operate—changes that for years have been resisted by local school boards and the educational establishment—will need to be accepted. Let’s consider a few.
The idea that every school needs a superintendent, principal, and full support staff on site is a concept whose time has come and gone. A school board and community wishing to retain their local school’s autonomy should enter into a cooperative agreement consolidating administrative functions with other smaller school districts while also outsourcing functions like payroll and accounting. Addressing these non-instructional overhead expenses, if properly done, should have no effect on student achievement while reducing costs for every school in the contract.
There is sufficient evidence in states that already have embraced the concept. In Nebraska, for example, Caroline B. Winchester of the University of Nebraska found “decreased administrative per pupil cost and decreased per pupil cost” after the first year of sharing superintendents. She also found that Nebraska’s system of shared superintendency led to districts that “shared staff, both certified and non-certified, equipment, and worked together on curriculum and assessments.”
Sharing staff through virtual classrooms represents another opportunity to minimize expenditures while maximizing both the quality of instruction and the number of course offerings. There is a large array of different entities offering online courses, including Stanford University. In addition, Silicon Valley High School, recently certified by the University of California system, only charges between $50 and $100 per course. These online courses allow a small school to provide every course that a large urban school might have—and then some. At most, these online courses require a proctor to monitor the classroom environment, all while providing access to top-quality teachers regardless of the location of the district. The proctor need not be a certified teacher but simply can be a responsible adult engaged on a part-time basis, thus avoiding the health insurance and retirement costs of a certified teacher. While it does require computer and Internet access, the savings in teacher salaries and benefits and direct overhead costs should be considerable while allowing a small school to broaden its course offerings.
Coordinated Purchasing Agreements
There is one more area of large potential savings, and this approach too is already being tried in other states. In New Jersey, districts shared “pupil transportation, library resources, food services, curriculum development, teacher training, child study teams, special education, snow and trash removal, custodial services, and purchasing.” Possibly a more functional option for rural Oklahoma may be the Wisconsin model of the Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA), which operates a statewide nonprofit cooperative purchasing service governed by statute. CESA nationally bids contracts for the state of Wisconsin in addition to dozens of other statewide agreements. CESA primarily serves K-12, tech schools, the University of Wisconsin system, libraries, and other educational entities. The economies of scale that larger districts have had as inherent cost savings can be acquired by small rural schools through these sorts of coordinated buying services without losing their autonomy.
In sum, there is no reason that talk of consolidation of districts needs to be part of the discussion in the next legislative session when options like these exist.
A Certified Public Accountant with more than 30 years of experience in private practice, he is currently a partner at Anderson, Reichert & Anderson LLC. Anderson spent two years as a budget analyst in the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, and most recently served as budget director for the State of Kansas. At one time he held 17 state teaching certifications ranging from mathematics to physics to business.