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Looking at the Benefits of Consolidation, Deconsolidation

When times get tough and money gets tight, lawmakers often turn to consolidation as an answer for small, rural districts. The logic is that larger, merged districts will save taxpayers' dollars and offer students a higher-quality education.

It's a controversial and constant issue facing rural educators, and recent reports reveal that the effects of district consolidation have been mixed.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation that would reduce number of districts in the state from 500, according to a story from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators compared Pennsylvania with six states that have countywide school systems and found Pennsylvania spent a smaller proportion on central office staff, and its standardized test scores mostly were better.

And in a separate February report from the National Education Policy Center, "Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What it Means," researchers reviewed the existing studies and found "a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies obtainable," and said some high-poverty areas can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.

They suggest deconsolidation, or breaking apart larger districts, would be more beneficial than consolidation in some cases, and decisions either way should be made on a case-by-case basis.

The report offered suggested guidelines for policymakers considering consolidation, such as: closely question claims on the benefits; consider other measures to improve fiscal efficiency and educational quality; investigate deconsolidation; and avoid statewide mandates, such as minimum sizes for schools and districts.

The recommendations sparked a few questions in my mind: What other guidelines would rural school advocates give state lawmakers who are considering consolidation? And, during the past few years of this economic downturn, how many schools and districts have been forced by their state's leadership to consolidate, or deconsolidate?

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