Tuesday, February 13, 2007

School Consolidation Sham Endangers Rural Schools

It’s amazing what happens to politicians when they no longer have to worry about being re-elected—they throw caution to the wind and become downright visionary.

Take our governor—no longer constrained by having to worry about another run for the Blaine House, he has an opportunity to portray himself as fiscally responsible and determined to give the people what they want, in this case, lower taxes, or rather, he can talk about his plan to lower the costs associated with educating tomorrow’s workers.

You see, since all he has left is legacy building, now is the time for our governor to throw caution to the wind, put his cards on the table and get creative. Or, maybe its now the right time to roll forward with one of his favorite canards—Maine’s education costs are too high because we have too many school districts and consequently, too many school administrators. If we shrink the number of school administrative districts from 152 to 26 regional school districts, this will apparently save the state $250 million in the first three years of implementation. If it were only that simple. I don't know what math he's using to come up with that number. If you take the salaries of all of Maine's superintendents, that figure is only $13 million. For the life of me, I don't know where the other $207 million is coming from.

Consolidation has been trotted out as the solution to all our education maladies for over 100 years. Any time educators (or politicians) are at a loss of what to do, they begin closing rural (community-based) schools, in favor of centralized fortresses that resemble the modern, urban school, with all its inherent dysfunction.

I found a critique of a book titled, Leadership for Rural Schools: Lessons for All Educators (Scarecrow Education, 2002), where several educators from across the country, presented issues encountered by rural schools.

I found the following, which apparently comes from the book’s third chapter, interestingly making an ode to Yogi Berra that great school reformer, himself. From the chapter called, “It's Deja Vu All Over Again': The Rural School Problem Revisited,” Penny Smith provides a detailed and comprehensive review of the criticisms that have been made of rural schooling since the nineteenth century. She notes, the list of ways in which rural schools have failed their students [according to their critics] has remained remarkably unchanged over most of the last two centuries" (p. 27). The solution to "the rural school problem" has also remained unchanged: Close and consolidate smaller community schools so that rural schools can more nearly approximate larger urban schools. Smith's historical review of rural educational reform is both scholarly and accessible. She notes that the rural school problem was "discovered" in the late nineteenth century when educational reformers started to view "the rural components of their state school systems as defective and were arguing that one reason for those defects was the rural environment in which they operated"(p. 30).

While Governor Baldacci is being lauded by those who would cheer anything a fellow Democrat does, he also has quieted some of his critics on the other side of the aisle. Certainly, one must give credit where credit’s due—he hasn’t found much to unite the state’s political forces, but school consolidation might be the only thing that leaves him with a legacy that curries favor with those in the state with short memories (or lack of historical perspective). However, for those willing to do a bit of research, or who have some sense of perspective, the Sinclair Act might be an area worth revisiting.

In 1957, some 50 years ago, the state began a systematic consolidation of rural schools under this particular piece of legislation. The primary onus for this push, was—you guessed it—efficiency Drawing on the industrial model, the idea behind consolidation was (and still is) that bigger “factories” can turn out product at less cost per unit. While some might argue that the Sinclair Act helped address some of the quality issues, at least initially, it certainly did nothing to alleviate annual increases in school spending, which have been trending upward (when adjusted for inflation) for five decades. (See Barbara Merrill's solution from her book, the section on community schools and the graph on school spending)

While the justification for the Baldacci plan continues to fly the flag of tax savings as its modus operandi, there are numerous critics around the state, primarily from the rural areas, who insist this is nothing but a “power grab,” and another example of government usurping local control.

From the February 8th issue of The Capital Weekly, came this assessment from Mike Cormier, representing MSAD 9, from the Farmington area, who said that “…the details of the governor’s plan are not flushed out and there are no models to show what the impact will be. He said that the property-tax burden would likely be shifted from the state to local level.”

John Nutting (D-Leeds), a political veteran and senator with the same affiliation as the governor, urged the Maine Small Schools Coalition to become better organized and characterized the Baldacci plan as a “draconian” plan for rural Maine.

In many of Maine's rural communities, the only anchor left is the local school. Contrary to the opinions of most bureaucrats, who rarely leave their political ivory towers, many of these schools do a great job, while operating efficiently and consistently score well in comparison to the larger education "factories" that came from Maine's first wave of consolidation in the 60s and 70s.

While there are ways to consolidate some of the basic services, closing rural schools and bussing students two hours to school isn't in the best interest of the students, the communities, or the future workforce they represent.


weasel said...

Agreed- consolidation needs to be used only where it leads to efficiency and better service, not inconvenience (school admin does need reforming, but not in a way that would endanger Maine's very impressive HS graduation rates). Why not push for other services to be combined instead? If I drive from Thomaston to Camden (a distance of 12 miles) I pass through the juristictions of 5 police departments (Thomaston, Rockland, Rockport, Camden, and Knox County). How is that a good use of property taxes? Bah. 2/3 of Bald Archie's problem is communication: how on earth did he think that unveiling the most radical of all the options via the state of the state was going to fly in "America's Curmudgeon State"?

And speaking of, I am gravely disappointed not to see a classic Jim B "Call that a storm? Storms were much better when I was a kid and before cable TV" post about yesterday's weather... :)

Rikki said...

I'm still in the honeymoon phase of all things Brookings Report. I agree with its underlying belief that we're adminstration-heavy in most of our government bureaucracies ... and I'm a lefty. I respect the skepticism expressed by you and many others whose opinions I typically share, in regard here to the feeling that there is no way this won't hurt education. I agree that this cannot proceed as a panacea for the problems identified by the TABOR crowd, but I also sense that we have a rare opportunity to take advantage of a whole bunch of deeply researched empirical data about the source of our bureaucratic ills. Maybe the Governor's exact version of the school administration issue isn't perfect, but I do applaud him for pushing the issue toward some sort of improved state. Perhaps he should have read the whole Brookings Report, including the part about how the school admin. consolidation issue should be addressed through regional action groups who would in turn come back to the state with workable local ways to make the cuts in their regions. Nah ... too easy.

Jim said...

The paucity of winter weather has rendered me incapable of generating the semi-regular "storms were better in the day" post I'm known for.

We'll have to see if I can get off one more "blast" before old man winter leaves us for another year.

It is true that Brookings did address the school administration duplication/costs issue--I've so soured on all things Baldacci that even Brookings can't entice me over to anything our lame-duck-in-chief endorses.

There--now that's spoken like a true curmudgeon.