ERIC Identifier: ED447991
Publication Date: 2000-10-00
Author: Haas, Toni
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV., AEL Inc. Charleston WV.
Balance Due: Increasing Financial Resources for Small Rural
Schools. ERIC Digest.
Small schools--including those in urban areas--offer many advantages and,
despite beliefs to the contrary, recent studies provide some evidence that small
schools can be cost effective (e.g., Stiefel, Iatarola, Fruchter, & Berne,
1998). Benefits include lower drop-out rates and higher rates of post-secondary
enrollment (Funk & Bailey, 1999). Small schools also reduce harmful effects
of poverty on student achievement (Howley & Bickel, 1999). Research findings
now provide broad support for the common sense notion that young people learn
best in intimate settings, where teachers can know how to boost each students'
academic achievement, self-control, and curiosity.
Yet, small public schools have become an endangered species over the past
century. The industrial mantra "bigger is better" drove consolidation efforts
that eliminated thousands of small schools. School funding policies reinforced
this trend and starved the remaining small schools of resources. The good news
is that, like the American bald eagle, small schools are returning. They exist
in every state--in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The bad news is that
current funding practices do not meet their needs. This ERIC Digest suggests
strategies that can help small public schools, particularly small rural schools,
redress funding inequalities and get the resources they need.
Basic strategies for improving resources at small rural schools include:
increasing operating funds by changing the state funding formula (increasing the
using existing resources more effectively
capturing new resources
The first strategy is most effective, but it takes the longest time and
requires changing many minds while working at a distance. The second, midrange
strategy is where most education leaders begin, rethinking how work is
accomplished. It requires changing minds locally. The third strategy takes the
shortest amount of time but holds the least promise for sustainable improvement.
Regardless of differences in purpose and payoff, each strategy works best when
the responsibility for securing resources is widely shared, inside and outside
INCREASING THE STATE FUNDING
Each state funds public
education by establishing a dollar amount per student for school operating
expenses. This system appears fair on the surface; however, rural schools
usually support essential, extensive, and expensive transportation and facility
maintenance costs. When state per pupil investment is stretched over these
comparatively higher costs, there are fewer dollars to invest in salaries,
materials, and equipment.
Local districts are permitted to tax themselves to supplement state funding,
but despite good intentions, inequities can pile up here as well. The amount of
money available from local taxes depends on the local tax base and the level to
which people vote to tax themselves. Another factor is the assessment value of
property. Resort areas, retirement communities, and expensive second homes sit
on land assessed at a higher value than agricultural land. In Vermont, for
example, schools in districts with a large tax base, such as in a wealthy suburb
or near a ski resort, may invest $11,000 of state and local funds in each
student every year and still have a relatively low tax levy. Residents in a
poorer, neighboring urban or small-town district could tax themselves more
heavily (set a higher mill rate) but have as little as $2,500 invested per
student. This is because their property valuations are lower. Variations among
regions and states can be even more dramatic, a result of long-standing public
policies. In the West, much of the land is public and generates very small
payments to support schools. In much of the South, the land is planted in timber
and traditionally assessed at a trifling rate.
Slow and patient work is required to create funding formulas that treat rural
schools fairly. The following paragraphs outline strategies that are potent,
powerful, and political.
Insist that each child, regardless of where she or he lives, deserves a
high-quality education. Community members, opinion leaders, and policymakers
need to be educated about this seemingly simple idea.
Demonstrate through research, testimony, and example that small schools
provide good returns on education investments. For instance, evaluations based
on cost per graduate rather than cost per student demonstrate that small schools
are remarkably economically efficient. Publicize the fundamental cost of
appropriate education, adjusting for transportation; facilities upkeep;
curriculum development; and staff recruiting, retraining, and retention. Point
out the effects of unfair funding formulas and hold legislators publicly
accountable for all of their students.
Look for friends, not enemies, and make alliances with nonrural partners who
share concerns for children. Advocates for small rural schools are most
effective when they come from outside the school, in partnership with insiders.
Expand the circle and include people who share similar goals and issues.
Finally, unpredictable, unexpected, and unusual alliances get attention. Find
ways to collaborate with urban and suburban people in statewide efforts.
Changing public opinion requires education, direct and indirect. Effective
small school leaders should conduct regular workshops for education reporters
and community members on the local impact of state funding formulas. The monthly
newsletter Rural Roots reports on strategies used across the nation to increase
operating budgets. Additional information can be found on the Rural School and
Community Trust Web site, www.ruraledu.org.
Litigation is a last resort. Of the 22 cases in which small schools have sued
states to change funding formulas, half have been decided for the plaintiffs and
half for the defendants. Of the 11 cases the plaintiffs won, only four resulted
in actual funding increases. Of the 11 plaintiffs who lost, funding actually
increased in one instance (Verstegen, 1999).
USING EXISTING RESOURCES MORE EFFECTIVELY
administrators go over budgets with a keen eye for finding opportunities to save
funds. The following paragraphs offer some additional suggestions.
Community members can provide paraprofessional services on a volunteer basis
(playground duty, hall monitoring, paper and test grading, library maintenance
and storytelling, tutoring in a variety of areas, etc.). Since many rural areas
have become retirement magnets, schools are finding new talent among people who
want to connect to their adopted communities. Parents, grandparents, and older
citizens are all possible contributors. To be most effective, schools need to
acknowledge volunteers' contributions in meaningful and personal ways. The best
programs recruit one of the volunteers to coordinate the work by building or
Encourage retiring teachers to volunteer to mentor new teachers. Retired
teachers can offer wisdom, perspective, and time that practicing teachers may
not have (Parsons, 1999). Beyond the classroom, the social aspect of many rural
communities can be mysterious to many newly arrived teachers. Mentoring builds
more effective and satisfied teachers, which saves money on recruitment. A more
stable staff can plan long-range professional development as a cadre rather than
hit-and-miss individual efforts.
Use the community as a focus of study. Challenge students to apply
theoretical principles to real-life situations. Students can serve communities
by acting as historians, researchers, scientists, and environmentalists.
Community members can supplement classroom teaching by providing relevant
instruction using the community setting. This helps the entire community view
young people as competent, caring contributors. Students learn more and produce
at a higher level when they feel their work matters. For hundreds of examples of
this kind of work, see Living and Learning in Rural Schools and Communities
(Rural Challenge Research and Evaluation Program, 1999). An added bonus is that
community-based work can result in significantly lower textbook expenditures and
increased community support for the schools.
CAPTURING NEW RESOURCES
Applying for grants from outside
sources is often the first strategy for capturing new resources; however, savvy
small schools look here last. Securing grants is a short-term strategy, requires
the least effort (relatively speaking), and likely will have the least impact.
Although grants can provide sudden infusions of cash and accelerate action, they
can distract schools from their primary purposes and divert effort from
long-term sustainable improvements.
"People give from their hearts, not their wallets" is the prime rule in
developing new funding sources. Small schools that are most effective in
obtaining new resources begin with the people who know them best, whose hearts
they have touched. They track and communicate with alumni and establish school
and community foundations to provide avenues for "giving back." The following
paragraphs outline some strategies for tapping into community resources.
As part of community meetings, create wish lists of school needs for current
patrons and community members. Offer specific information about the
contributions that the school makes to the community, that students make to
community life, and that the community makes to the school. Thank benefactors
profoundly, publicly, and repeatedly.
State and federal governments provide funds for specific purposes through
formula grants and discretionary grants. Formula grants, awarded on a
per-student basis, penalize small schools just as formula funding often does.
Help your congressional staffers become familiar with the small schools in their
district, the people they serve, and how small rural schools can receive a
fairer share of federal grants. Remember, the Congressional representative is
important, but his or her staff is essential. Helpful representatives and their
staffs can oversee the design of competitions and numbers of awards made to
small schools through federal procurement. This serves their present and future
constituencies. ("Thank yous" from young people are powerfully motivating to
State discretionary grants are usually made in response to proposals, but
small schools seldom get their fair share of these funds. The application
process can be burdensome, particularly when people are stretched across
multiple responsibilities. Small schools may not have the insight or skills to
produce polished, focused proposals (for assistance, see Geever & McNeill,
1997). Some states assign an internal advocate for small schools within the
state department of education. This person is responsible for streamlining the
proposal application process. Each slate of successful awards is then analyzed
to determine whether small schools have a fair share of the state's resources.
Small schools within a state, within a region, or from across the nation can
develop grant proposals collaboratively and share intelligence about the grant
awards process by taking turns evaluating grants. When staff and community
members volunteer to evaluate grants, the insights they gain can be shared with
other potential small school applicants.
Foundations are a final source of additional funds. Every nonprofit
foundation is established with a specific mission. Advocates for small schools
(usually staff, but also community volunteers) can learn about a foundation's
mission by reading its free annual report. Foundations welcome letters of
inquiry. A simple description of the school's community and student body as well
as the size, scope, and nature of the request will tell the foundation whether
there is a good match between its program and the school's needs. Information
about foundations, including descriptions and contact information, is available
through libraries. (See guides listed below by the Foundation Center, 2000;
Johnson and Morth, 1999; and Morth, 1996.)
Foundation Center. (2000). The Foundation
Center's guide to grantseeking on the Web. New York: Author.
Funk, P., & Bailey, J. (1999). Small schools, big results: Nebraska high
school completion and post-secondary enrollment rates by size of school
district. Lincoln: Nebraska Alliance for Rural Education.
Geever, J. C., & McNeill, P. (1997). The Foundation Center's guide to
proposal writing. New York: The Foundation Center.
Howley, C. B., & Bickel, R. (1999). The Matthew project: National report.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 433 174)
Johnson, P. J., & Morth, M. (Ed.). (1999). Foundation fundamentals: A
guide for grantseekers. 6th Ed. New York: The Foundation Center.
Mathews, D. (1996). Is there a public for public schools? Dayton, OH:
Kettering Foundation Press.
Morth, M. (Ed.). (1996). The Foundation Center's user-friendly guide: A
grantseeker's guide to resources. 4th Ed. New York: The Foundation Center.
Parsons, C. (1999). Mentors strengthen community service. Chester, VT:
Rural Challenge Research and Evaluation Program. (1999). Living and learning
in rural schools and communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of
Scott, B. D. (1999). Standing up for community and school. Washington, DC:
The Rural School and Community Trust.
Stiefel, L., Iatarola, P., Fruchter, N., & Berne, R. (1998). The effects
of size of student body on school costs and performance in New York City high
schools. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York
University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 420 464)
Verstegen, D. A. (1999). The impact of school finance litigation on rural and
small schools/districts. Randolph, VT: The Rural School and Community Trust.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 436 853)