State should nurture small school districts

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

Bigger is better, the experts say. Here we go again.

Ball State University has released a study on the disadvantages of small school districts that we hope isn’t used in an effort to whip the districts into a consolidation frenzy.

According to the study, when school district enrollment is less than 2,000, it reduces operating efficiency. Overhead costs per pupil are too high for the districts to be able to fund STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) courses and other more costly programs, especially for high school students.

School districts with an enrollment of 2,000 to 2,999 had better SAT, ACT and AP scores, the study showed.

The study doesn’t come right out and make a recommendation, but the implications are obvious. Small school districts in contiguous communities should combine to save on overhead expenses.

We’ve heard this before.

There was a time when “bigger is better” was supposedly the answer for schools as well. There was a 100-year-trend, in fact, of bigger and bigger secondary schools. The benefits of consolidated, comprehensive schools  —  economies of scale, social equality and increased program offerings  — were taken as a given.

But recently there has been a renewal of appreciation for smaller schools. More intimate learning communities, it turns out, are better for safety, teaching conditions and academic performance, for example. The benefits are so desirable that districts across the country are experimenting with ways to create smaller school communities within larger ones.

The parallel between school size and district size may not be perfect, but it is real enough to underscore an important lesson: Let’s find ways to nurture the good we have before we toss it aside for something we merely think is better.

For example, districts in Indiana already cooperate on the purchase of school supplies through K-12Indiana, a partnership between the state and the Educational Service Centers of Indiana. Certainly similar arrangements could be made for cooperative efforts on specialized academic programs.

Obviously, some districts are so small and struggling that consolidation may be the only answer. But many can be saved with creative solutions and dedicated educators. We have lost too much in modern history with ever bigger and less intimate enterprises in every aspect of life. Where we can, let’s cherish the small and personal a little longer.