ERIC Identifier: ED321964
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Lutz, Frank W.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Trends and Options in the Reorganization or Closure
of Small or Rural Schools and Districts. ERIC Digest.
This Digest focuses on the trends and policy options that affect the
reorganization of small, rural school districts. It considers the slowed
pace of reorganization and the expanded role of State Education Agencies
(SEAs). It reports trends that influence attention to the various forms
of reorganization, and those that shape a continued interest in reorganization
as a policy option. Finally, it considers the framework in which policy
options may take shape in the future.
The near-extinction of the one-room school (over the last 50 years)
reflects the history of American education. In 1940, there were approximately
200,000 one-room schools in the United States. Today, there are fewer than
800. We now have a national system that, in comparison with schooling in
an earlier era, exhibits a professional consensus about how to organize
TRENDS IN THE REORGANIZATION OF SCHOOL DISTRICTS
In 1931-32, there were 127,531 school districts in the United States.
Taking the 1931-32 figure as a base year, this number declined by:
10 percent in 1941-42 (to 115,493);
45 percent in 1951-52 (to 71,094);
73 percent in 1961-62 (to 35,676);
86 percent in 1970-71 (to 17,995); and
88 percent in 1981-82 (to 15,912).
The decades from 1940 to 1970 show the largest declines, most of which
can be accounted for by the reorganization of small and rural school districts.
Since 1970, however, the pace of district-level reorganization has slowed.
Of the 15,912 districts in existence in 1981-82, 97 percent (15,577) remained
in 1987-88 (U.S. Department of Education, 1989).
Many small or rural school districts, however, continue to exist. In
1987-88, about 29 percent of the 15,577 school districts in the United
States enrolled fewer than 300 pupils, and about 78 percent enrolled fewer
than 2,500 pupils. Most school districts in the United States, therefore,
are still small; many are, in fact, very small. School districts with fewer
than 2,500 pupils were serving 22.1 percent of the total pupil population
of the U.S. in 1987-88.
Analysis of schools, rather than districts, also shows that small schools
continue to exist. There were 83,248 public schools operating in 1987-88.
Of these, approximately 42 percent had enrollments of fewer than 300 students
(U.S. Department of Education, 1989). Moreover, according to Johnson (1989),
approximately 53 percent of all schools were located in nonmetropolitan
areas. About 27 percent were located in places with total populations under
2,500 (one narrow definition of "rural"). The schools in this latter group
had the smallest median enrollments for any of the seven types of locale
defined by Johnson.
Declining enrollments in recent decades complicate the statistical picture.
From a high of nearly 45 million in 1970, public elementary and secondary
enrollments had declined by 5 million as of 1986. These declines were doubtless
reflected at the school level, as well. The U.S. Department of Education,
however, projects enrollments to increase to approximately 45 million by
1997 (Baker & Ogle, 1989).
THE INFLUENCE OF SEAS
This analysis suggests that the significant drop in the pace of reorganization
cannot be attributed to the absence of small educational units. The slowed
pace of reorganization, moreover, seems not to be caused by any reduction
in the power of the various SEAs.
Several trends in the 1970s and 1980s have tended, in fact, to increase
the power of SEAs with respect to small and rural schools. First, the shift
from categorical aid to block grants has given SEAs greater discretion
in the use of a variety of human and fiscal resources. Second, this greater
discretion has tended to increase SEAs' influence in rural, small, and
impoverished school districts. Finally, the reforms of the 1980s have been
state- rather than locally- or federally-driven. This circumstance has
also tended to enhance state (and SEA) influence over locally operated
schools (Lutz, 1989).
The trends of the 1970s and 1980s give SEAs greater power to consolidate
small and rural schools. In financially hard-pressed areas, SEAs would
have a compelling incentive to pursue reorganization. The preceding data,
however, may suggest that state interest in reorganization has waned. On
the other hand, these data may suggest that resistance to reorganization
(for example, from community groups) may have become stronger during this
time. Yet another possibility is that reorganization has proceeded to such
an extent that it is physically difficult to combine the remaining schools
TRENDS THAT INFLUENCE ATTENTION TO SCHOOL DISTRICT REORGANIZATION
Several trends influence the various forms of reorganization that affect
small and rural school districts. First, in the 1970s and 1980s, states
faced litigation over the issue of fiscal equity. This issue inevitably
follows the evolution of state funding formulas. Of course, existing formulas
in many cases reflect earlier attempts to resolve fiscal inequities. On
the one hand, creating larger units may tend to reduce the variation in
funding (and, hence, one measure of inequity) among all schools and districts.
On the other hand, creating some larger units--and leaving many small units--could
actually increase inequity.
Second, the achievement of equity may depend on consensus about what
the principles of adequate support for education might be. Without such
a consensus, some observers believe that the issue of equity cannot be
resolved (for example, Honeyman, Thompson, & Wood, 1989). One recent
nationally publicized court case illustrates this point. Edgewood v Kirby
relied on the argument that the Texas funding plan made inadequate funds
available to property-poor (mostly rural and small) districts for the construction
and repair of school buildings. Honeyman and colleagues (1989) concluded
that the argument applied to many small, rural districts across the nation.
Third, concern in the research community about the possible effects
of the scale of educational organizations is substantial. Emerging research
suggests that, particularly for at-risk students, large educational units
may produce negative effects on achievement and attitudes (Howley, 1989).
Moreover, some researchers have noted that evidence of the benefits ascribed
to the various forms of reorganization (for example, improvements in effectiveness,
efficiency, and equity) is scanty (Valencia, 1984). Whether or not such
findings will influence the actions of policymakers is open to question.
Such work, however, may already have begun to influence the thinking of
some rural educators and community members.
INCENTIVES FOR A CONTINUING INTEREST IN REORGANIZATION
Education reform in the 1980s emerged largely as a set of individual
state provisions. At the same time, the state reforms are attentive to
the national market economy. For this reason, they tend to reflect a national
(often urban-based) consensus. They are virtually silent about the context
of education in rural areas (Lutz, 1989).
While the reforms reflect national priorities, the individual states
have also undertaken to share (with local districts) the cost of such reforms.
Because the reforms seem to reflect a drive for greater efficiency within
each state, it is logical for the states to hold districts accountable.
Rural and small districts, however, may be held accountable for efficiencies
they cannot achieve because of the comparatively higher costs of doing
business in rural areas (Smith & DeYoung, 1988). Accountability, for
example, will doubtless include state reviews of school operations. Rural
and small schools, especially in impoverished districts, are more likely
than other districts to be found "ineffective" and "inefficient" in meeting
standards set by the state (Stephens, 1988).
The traditional challenges that small, rural, and poor school districts
face combine with the recent press for state-mandated, but inadequately
funded, requirements (see Honeyman et al., 1989). This combination often
presses administrators and boards of small and rural local districts into
seeking reorganization as a last resort (Smith & DeYoung, 1988). Haller
and Monk (1988) believe that it is this "dead weight" of tradition that
will, in fact, maintain interest in the various forms of reorganization.
BALANCING POLICY OPTIONS
Solutions, it seems, will address the new national and state goals for
education. And yet, if new policies are to be responsive to the needs of
rural students and communities, they should also take into account the
changing context of rural education and new knowledge about the advantages
of small-scale organization.
Research suggests that what happens in the classroom is the ultimate
measure of the effectiveness of school reform. Evidence is accumulating
that suggests that small-scale organization (both at the district and school
levels) brings with it opportunities for positive results in the classroom.
In the future, policy options should address ways to capitalize on such
Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing states will be to establish
an adequate funding level and to work toward that level on an equitable
basis (Honeyman et al., 1989). Policymakers concerned with rural education
will have to balance the inevitably higher costs of maintaining small schools
with the advantages that small schools seem to offer for improving instruction,
especially among at-risk students. Such a difficult balancing act, of course,
takes place in the arena of statewide concern for equity, effectiveness,
and efficiency in all school districts and solutions will not emerge easily.
Baker, C., & Ogle, L. (Eds.). (1989). The condition of education
(Volume 1: Elementary and secondary education). Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 306 707)
Haller, E., & Monk, D. (1988). New reforms, old reforms, and the
consolidation of small rural schools. Educational Administration Quarterly,
Honeyman, D., Thompson, D., & Wood, R. (1989). Financing rural and
small schools: Issues of adequacy and equity. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 314 225)
Howley, C. (1989). Synthesis of the effects of school and district size:
What research says about achievement in small schools and school districts.
Journal of Rural and Small Schools, 4(1), 2-12.
Johnson, F. (1989, March). Assigning type of locale codes to the 1987-1988
CCD public school universe. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 312 113)
Lutz, F. (1989). Reforming education American style. In W. Eaton (Ed.),
History of politics and methodology in American education. NY: Teachers
Smith, D., & DeYoung, A. (1988). Big school vs. small school: Conceptual,
empirical and political perspectives on the re-emerging debate. Journal
of Rural and Small Schools, 2(2), 2-11.
Stephens, E. (1988). The changing context of education in a rural setting.
Charleston, WV: Appalachia Educational Laboratory. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 307 097)
U.S. Department of Education. (1989). Elementary and secondary schools:
Schools and school districts (Common Core of Data Survey). Washington,
DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Valencia, R. (1984). School closures and policy issues (Policy Paper
No. 84-C3). Stanford, CA: Institute for Research on Educational Finance