Economic development is so important that municipalities and state governments are willing to expend big money to attract jobs.
Everyone hears about the lavish pursuits, such as when Arkansas and Marion wooed Toyota, but even projects involving as few as 20 jobs can garner grants and other enticements from small communities.
Imagine an Arkansas town with a population of 730 and a median household income slightly above (and a poverty rate 40 percent lower than) the state average landing a new business that will employ 70 people at good wages, generating a payroll in excess of $2 million. That would be pretty big local news.
Now imagine the state shutting down a business that size in that same town over some arbitrary regulatory shortfall that had nothing to do with the company’s performance or productivity. That would be roundly (and rightly) condemned as idiocy—except when it’s done in the name of education.
Either way, it’s still economic destruction. Maybe that’s why Arkansas finds itself wallowing at the bottom of the statistical pile so often. The state Education Board is destroying jobs and communities via misguided school consolidation policy faster than economic development efforts can attract replacements.
That legislators lack foresight over the effect school closures would have on towns while arbitrarily establishing 350 students as the minimum enrollment for public schools isn’t necessarily inexcusable. But failing now to rethink and probably amend in order to improve Act 60 of 2003 is unforgivable.
In other states where consolidation has been implemented, the empowering legislation often required that first various studies be conducted for student bus ride times and potential adverse community economic impact. In Arkansas, we’ve taken a more senseless approach, closing schools with no pre-planning at all.
Using a “magic enrollment number” approach relegates school and student performance to irrelevant status when things like test scores,parental involvement and graduation rates arguably should be touchstone measures. Even the slightest effort would have revealed mounds of research with which to shape a responsible approach to addressing inefficient or ineffective rural districts without closing efficient and effective schools.
Almost all researchers now seem to agree that oversized districts are chronic underperformers in areas such as grades, cost-per-pupil efficiency, discipline and attendance, yet Arkansas law still requires a minimum of 4,000 students to create a new district (even though 40 percent of our population, or 1.2 million people, live in rural areas). Longer bus rides have been unequivocally linked to poorer grades, particularly in elementary students.
Just as college degrees are bellwethers for individual income and lifestyle outcomes, a Cornell University study conducted in 2002 concluded that there were measurable and predictable socio-economic differences between small towns that keep schools and those that lose them.
The study analyzed data from all 352 incorporated villages and towns with populations under 2,500 in New York, dividing the places by population: 71 towns with 500 or fewer people and 281 with more than 500.
About half of the smaller group had a school compared to about three-fourths of the larger group. All the towns, with or without schools, shared similarities such as age-level profiles and percentage of households with children and with children in school. But fiscal disparities were pronounced in towns without schools and got worse as towns got smaller.
Housing values in those communities with schools were 25 percenthigher than those without schools and towns with schools saw population growth from 1990-2000 at a 30 percent higher rate than those without.
Overall, communities with schools had higher per capita incomes, more entrepreneurial income, less poverty and less public assistance.
In 1994, an Iowa study tied population growth to the presence of a local high school, discovering that half the communities with a high school gained significant population (5 percent or more) while 75 percent of those without a high school lost population. Minnesota research conducted in 1987 analyzed six rural districts and found that school payroll ranged from 4-9 percent of total county payroll and take-home pay from district jobs amounted to as much as 10 percent of the counties’ retail sales.
Clearly, there ought to be more consideration before shutting down such vital community engines than just whether an acknowledged high performing school district like Weiner in Northeast Arkansas barely missed a meaningless enrollment number. (Weiner was eight students shy.)
West Virginia, which has seen its own ill-conceived consolidation policies backfire by both increasing costs and lowering performance, is now designating some districts as Education Innovation Zones. Approved schools can opt out of certain codes and policies provided theyhave a solid plan on how the exceptions will translate to better teaching and learning.
In Arkansas, we might have Education Overachievement Zones, where minor enrollment deficiencies in rural districts could be outweighed by things like student performance and local tax support.
Doing more with less (ingenuity is its formal name) used to be the American way. But it’s never been the government way, and that’s the real problem.