Anything But Research-based: State Initiatives to Consolidate Schools and Districts

Last Updated: March 06, 2006

This article appeared in the March 2006 Rural Policy Matters.


The consolidation of schools and school districts is an ongoing issue in most of rural America. Each year hundreds of communities face the closure of their local school or the loss of their local school district-and the school governance positions associated with the district. State policies promoting consolidation have existed for most of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Indeed, the numbers of schools and districts in this country have been drastically reduced, despite burgeoning school populations.

The research evidence supporting this widely implemented policy, however, is virtually non-existent. In fact, research on the effects of school size on student achievement and well-being is extensive, spans the political spectrum, and is unusually consistent in its findings that small size benefits students, especially students who are at risk for educational difficulties.

Why then do so many states continue to develop consolidation policies that are anything but research-based? Why is this irrational and failed approach to educational improvement forced upon rural communities, despite their widespread and often vehement opposition? What do advocates of quality education for rural children need to understand about how school and district consolidation is promoted as well as what some states are doing to support small schools and districts?

The information below examines the extent of consolidation in the United States and presents a summary of research on the topic. It also examines common state policies and practices that result in the consolidation of schools and districts, especially in low-wealth rural areas, and it summarizes activities in 11 states that are currently entertaining consolidation proposals or promoting consolidation initiatives in the year 2006. Finally, it discusses policies and practices that support high quality rural education and summarizes examples from several states.


Policymakers are giving unprecedented lip service to the importance of data-based decision-making and research-based education reforms. But many are not heeding their own admonitions and are instead exploring or actively promoting initiatives that force or create incentives for the consolidation of small schools or school districts-a move that is anything but research-based. The irrationality of these policies in the face of increasing pressure to shore up achievement levels, graduation rates, and public support for schools and to close longstanding achievement gaps is only underscored by ongoing and widespread efforts to break up large high schools in urban centers. Some states are, however, backing away from high pressure consolidation initiatives.

Extent of Consolidation in the U.S. through 2000  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. had 117,108 school districts in 1937-38, the first year for which numbers are available. During that same year, there were approximately 250,000 public schools. By 1999-2000, the number of districts had been reduced to just 14,928 and the number of schools to just 92,012. This dramatic reduction in the number of schools and districts occurred even though public school enrollment rose from 25.5 million to 46.9 million during the same time period.

The vast majority of schools and districts that are currently being considered for closure have already been through multiple rounds of consolidation. In the many rural communities that have already lost their schools, some children and teenagers ride a school bus three or four hours each day and are robbed of valuable time and opportunities for study, participation in extracurricular activities, family responsibilities, community life, after-school work, and exercise. The fact that so many remaining rural schools face unabated consolidation pressures raises questions about whether this failed policy will be halted or will continue until schools have been eliminated from rural communities and reserved entirely for larger regional towns. It also raises important questions that are fundamental to the American democratic enterprise, including: Which communities are allowed to govern their schools? Which communities are allowed to have a school? Do citizens have a right to participate in these decisions? Why are some rural children denied the right to a quality education close to home?

Why It Matters: The Research Base on School and District Size

The research supporting small schools and districts is both broad and deep. Students, especially low-income students, perform better in small schools and districts. Rural communities with schools are economically and socially healthier. What's more, in the highly politicized field of education research, these consistent findings span the political spectrum. Here's what the research finds:

Achievement. Few educational issues are better documented than the effect of school size on student achievement and well-being, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports small schools and districts. When socio-economic factors are controlled, students who attend smaller schools are more likely to graduate and participate in a greater number and wider variety of extracurricular activities. A higher percentage of students in small schools take advantage of advanced curricular offerings. The effects are especially strong for at-risk students who tend to score significantly higher on standardized tests when they attend small schools.

Student and Community Well-Being. Small schools have lower rates of crime and violence, and greater rates of parental involvement and community support. Teachers, students, and parents report greater satisfaction with the quality of their school relationships. Several studies have found that small communities that have schools also have higher home values, lower rates of poverty, fewer residents on public assistance, more entrepreneurs, more professionals, and more people employed locally than similar communities without schools. In addition, where districts are small, the numbers of citizens participating in the democratic governance of schools is higher. And, where schools are small, there are more citizens who directly take part in and responsibility for the process of schooling in their community through participation in things like parent-teacher groups, community fundraising efforts, boosters clubs, and school activities and events.

Costs and Economy. A growing body of research evidence documents the failure of consolidation-of either districts or schools-to produce savings in the operating costs of schooling. Those studies that looked at what actually happened, rather than at what was predicted, found little if any savings accomplished through consolidation. In other words, small schools and districts are as cost-effective as large ones, especially in rural areas and especially when their better outcomes-higher graduation rates and better test scores-are factored in. Because of the population sparseness that defines rural areas, small schools and small districts do, in many instances, have higher per pupil costs than larger schools and districts. But consolidation (as opposed to sharing arrangements) does not eliminate these costs, it tends to shift them to expenditures for transportation (for school districts and for families), to larger and more distant administrative bureaucracy, and to programs that address problems caused by larger size, like drop-out prevention, student discipline, decreased parent involvement, and lowered achievement. Many districts have found residents less willing to support increased school taxes after consolidation, in part because consolidation was over-promoted as a way to save money and even reduce tax burden.

Lastly, schools are essential components of rural economic and social infrastructure, so they can play a key role in the economic redevelopment of rural communities and in efforts to staunch the loss of population and wealth from rural areas. Closing schools in these communities removes, what is in most cases, the only remaining public institution and cuts off a community's primary means of organizing itself, the anchor to its remaining economic activity, and its ability to serve its children-all of which are necessary for the development of any kind of productive economy.

Small Schools, Small Districts. Much of the research indicates that the most positive outcomes for rural students occur in small schools located in small districts. It is in these districts that schools are most likely to be governed by adults who are closely connected and responsive to students and the school's entire constituency. When districts are large, school governance is more likely to be bureaucratized, centralized, and distanced from the immediate concerns of students and their communities.

For more information and research references, see  

District Consolidation and School Consolidation: The Differences and Relationships among Types of Consolidation

Rural school districts are configured in a variety of ways, based primarily on the size of the area that they serve. Three basic configurations are typical:
  • Community school districts usually serve one primary community and the surrounding countryside. These districts, and their schools, tend to be small. Most serve all grades, Kindergarten through 12. Some of these, however, are elementary-only districts whose students attend high school in a K-12 district or in a district offering only high school to several elementary-only districts.
  • Regionalized rural school districts usually serve several communities, but not the entire county. They may or may not span county lines
  • Countywide rural school districts serve the entire county. In some places, there is also one or more autonomous "city" school district situated within the county. These "donut" or "swiss cheese" rural districts serve the parts of the county that are not inside the boundaries of the city district/s. Countywide districts, and their schools, tend to be large and to serve a wide geographic area. Many of them operate only one high school and a small number of elementary schools.

Most states have some mix of district types, with community districts concentrated in the West, Midwest, and New England and countywide districts in the South. Rural districts of all configurations tend toward operating one school for each grade span, especially at the high school level. In other words, the consolidation of districts usually leads to the consolidation of schools. Geographically large districts usually have schools that are much larger than geographically small districts with similar population density.

In states with countywide school districts, consolidation initiatives are generally aimed at schools. In states with community districts, consolidation initiatives usually push district mergers first and often follow up with incentives or pressure to consolidate schools in newly consolidated districts. 

While it is important to distinguish between district and school consolidation, the two are closely related and similar policies are used to consolidate both rural schools and districts.

Consolidation and Desegregation  

It is also important to distinguish between consolidation and racial or economic desegregation. Consolidation is a policy initiative aimed primarily at making districts or schools larger (even when ostensibly justified by economic or academic rationales). Desegregation, which often necessitates combining students or tax bases, is aimed at making schools fairer, more just for all children. States' responsibility to ensure that all students are educated well entails ensuring a distribution of resources that will result in all children learning at levels that enable them to make free choices about their careers and how and where they will live their lives. That responsibility also necessitates making sure that the most economically and politically vulnerable citizens, communities, and children are not weakened by a loss of community institutions, governance authority, leadership venues, or by social or cultural marginalization because of government action.

In this respect it is important to distinguish between the legitimate resistance of rural communities to forced consolidation-where consolidation is the externally driven closure of an important local institution, the removal of essential governance opportunities, and the harm inflicted upon rural children and communities by a misguided public policy-and the unconscionable resistance of communities (of any size or location) to sharing resources, providing all children with a high quality education, encouraging children of different racial/ethnic and economic backgrounds to attend school together, or addressing prejudice and racism.

Sticks and Carrots: Common State Policies that Push Consolidation 

Most states that decide to ignore the research and push district or school consolidation usually use some combination of incentives and negative pressures. These may include legislative mandates to force consolidation or state education requirements that are very difficult for small schools or districts to meet. Pressures can come in the form of school finance formulas that fiscally starve small schools or districts or when states require, but do not fund new programs. Some states offer direct or indirect financial incentives.

Some of the more common sticks and carrots used by states to promote consolidation:

  • Size limits. The most direct approach to consolidation is simply to create a minimum size and legislate out of existence any school or district that falls under that limit. Arkansas has been employing this method for the past several years, forcing districts with fewer than 350 students to merge with another district-regardless of the academic effectiveness or fiscal viability of the district or the hardship or distance imposed on students through the merger.
  • Eliminate specific types of districts. Similar in process to size limits, this approach eliminates certain kinds of districts, usually by legislative mandate. The Nebraska legislature has attempted to force all Class I-Elementary-Only districts to merge with a district that includes a high school.
  • Fiscal starvation/differentiated funding. Some states structure the school funding formula in ways that directly or indirectly provide more money for larger districts or for larger schools within districts. It's an approach that forces communities with small schools or districts to provide a larger share of school funding if they want to maintain their school. This can put enormous pressure on the local tax system, and in some cases, pit communities against each other.
    A proposed "local option" bill in Nebraska would reduce state per pupil funding to K-12 districts with fewer than 390 students. Maine's Essential Programs and Services funding formula provides state funding on the basis of student-staff ratios that do not account for actual need in small schools and districts. In addition, some costs, such as transportation, are funded on a per-pupil rather than a cost basis, a situation especially difficult for sparsely populated rural areas. As a result, nearly half of Maine's districts with fewer than 300 students and more than a third of districts with 250 to 500 students are losing funding. By comparison, less than 10% of districts with more than 2,000 students are losing funding.
  • Unfunded mandates. One of the more subtle approaches, the unfunded mandate seems to affect all schools equally, but in fact it often impacts small and low-wealth schools or districts more severely. For example, sometimes states add requirements for specific staff positions like full-time counselors or for facility features like specific kinds of science labs that large schools typically have or that the finance formula makes possible only in large settings.
  • High School curriculum. Similar to the unfunded mandate, additions to the required high school curriculum (and sometimes elementary or middle grade curriculum) force schools to hire additional staff or offer specific courses in specific ways. Frequently, local districts are restricted from developing alternative delivery routes or interdisciplinary approaches that could be more appropriate to their situation and more educationally sound. Some states simply add additional years of specific courses-like requiring four years of math instead of three. A number of states including Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, and Ohio have raised or are considering raising graduation requirements; not all states are giving equal consideration to providing additional funding to meet those standards. These requirements can stress low-wealth schools and districts in additional ways. For example, raising the number of math and science courses required for graduation increases the demand for certified and Highly Qualified math and science teachers across the state and gives a competitive advantage to high-wealth districts that can offer higher salaries to lure teachers away from other districts. Interestingly, research in Nebraska indicates that although larger schools offer more courses than smaller ones, student participation in the curriculum is actually both relatively and absolutely lesser.
  • Construction policies/State Building Authorities. One of the more common ways that states force consolidation is through capital outlay and finance arrangements that only fund schools of minimum enrollments or square footages. To make matters worse, states often neglect to provide enough funding for routine maintenance, thereby forcing districts to defer maintenance until catastrophic problems arise. Many states also have policies that favor new construction over renovation. Some states have a central authority that governs school contracts and decides which schools in the state will be repaired, replaced, or consolidated. West Virginia's School Building Authority has near-total control of school building policy in the state and has disproportionately targeted small schools in poorer communities for closure. Kentucky only provides bonding capacity for districts that will build schools of a particular size, forcing school systems to consolidate buildings in order to address facilities needs.
    Rural communities face additional problems because they typically have few high-value properties, business establishments, and sales centers that can generate significant tax revenue. Twin, but divergent, problems further complicate matters:  some states cap or place other restrictions on the ability of local jurisdictions to tax themselves, thereby limiting access to local revenue for local projects. Some states, by contrast, require local jurisdictions to carry a portion of school or facility funding that it is beyond the revenue-generating capacity of some low-wealth rural districts.
  • Financial Inducements. A number of states offer financial incentives to districts that merge with another district or to districts that eliminate some of their schools. Oftentimes these incentives are one-time cash infusions and sometimes they are multi-year installments designed "to cover the costs of merging." New York provides hefty financial incentives, paid over several years, to newly merged districts. Kansas provides incentives and allows newly-merged districts to retain a portion of their small district aid for several years to help cover the costs of district consolidation.

Additional Educational Programs that Assume Larger, More Urban Schools

Some pressures that lead to consolidation derive from approaches to schooling that are not direct consolidation incentives, but represent a failure to accommodate the unique circumstances of rural schools and districts. Often these approaches value specialization, create curriculum frameworks that rely on urban resources, and require "inputs" that place more emphasis on what a school must have than on evidence of what students actually learn. These policies tend to create problems for small schools in urban areas too, but problems are generally more severe in rural areas.
  • Narrow teacher certification and "Highly Qualified Teacher" definitions. Small schools need teachers who can teach more than one subject or grade level and who can integrate curriculum across subjects. Teacher training and licensing mechanisms that cover only one discipline-sometimes only one subject (like chemistry) within a larger subject area (science, for example)-or for a narrow age range, create serious staffing challenges for small schools, especially at the middle and high school levels.
  • Urban-oriented teacher training. Teacher training programs tend to be located in small and large cities and usually place their students in clinical settings near the college. This practice denies teacher trainees experience teaching in rural and small school settings, prevents most rural schools from hosting and helping to train student teachers, and it eliminates for rural schools an important route to finding and hiring newly trained teachers. In addition, few teacher training programs prepare prospective teachers to staff multi-age classrooms, use distance learning technology to teach, or understand the circumstances and economies of rural places.
  • Failure to invest in high quality distance learning programs and training. Some states provide a technology "backbone" or other programs that extend distance learning technology to most schools, but a failure to provide training, ongoing support, and maintenance too often leaves the systems underutilized and students and communities underserved.
  • Accreditation requirements. Some regional accreditation associations emphasize specific inputs rather than outcomes. While adequate resources are an essential aspect of schooling, some requirements are of marginal educational value for small schools. For example, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools requires a full-time principal for all schools regardless of size. This requirement bars principles from taking on any teaching responsibilities and forces unnecessarily high overhead costs in communities where schools need to be very small.

Public Relations Strategies Intended to Raise Support for Consolidation

When forced consolidation becomes the intent of states or localities, that intent is often accompanied by strategies for shaping public opinion or enforcing state policies. Some of these strategies include:
  • Initiatives with Misleading Names. Some consolidation measures are given misleading names that sound innocuous or even helpful, but actually are detrimental to rural and small schools and districts. For example, Nebraska's proposed "local choice" option reduces state per-pupil funding for districts that "choose" to remain small.
  • Divide and conquer. The effect of many policies is to pit different types of school districts or schools against each other. For example, a proposal in Illinois would "make it easier for districts to consolidate." Currently, if an elementary-only district wants to merge with its high school district, all elementary-only districts that feed the same high school must approve the merger. Under the proposal, when a merger is presented any small elementary-only district that did not approve the merger would have to find another high school for their students to attend within five years; this makes it possible for one elementary district to oust other elementary districts from their high school.
  • Unequal Enforcement. Many states have policies that respond to fiscal or academic needs of schools or districts, but these policies are not always enforced equitably in all schools. For example, Arkansas requires that districts in fiscal or academic distress be reconstituted, taken over by the state, or consolidated out of existence. However, the consolidation strategy has been used more often with small rural districts, then with larger districts.
  • Ideal school size. Sometimes the notion of an "ideal school size" is promoted even though research suggests there is no single ideal for all the varied circumstances of communities and students. Rarely do states penalize schools above this fictional designation. But even when there is no overt penalty for being smaller than the ideal size, the strategy suggests to residents of urban and suburban areas that small schools are inferior.
  • It's a local decision/it's a state decision. This strategy, seen often in large districts with several schools, usually involves a state "recommendation" to close one or more schools-frequently attended by serious pressure or incentive for local school boards to accept the recommendation. Technically, a decision to consolidate remains with the local board-protecting the state from charges that it is directing local board business, but state pressure to consolidate shields local consolidation promoters who can say, "the state is making us do this."
  • Intimidation. It's an unfortunate, but fairly common reality that intimidation and personal slurs are used against people fighting consolidation. Sometimes teachers or administrators have their jobs, or the jobs of family members, subtly threatened. Sometimes rumors are spread locally. It's not uncommon for pro-consolidation media outlets to portray community advocates of small schools in unflattering ways, to use derogatory rural stereotypes, and to misrepresent the legitimate concerns of rural residents and parents as self-interest, commitment to local athletic teams, or ignorance of and disregard for what's best for their own children.

Current State Consolidation Proposals or Initiatives, Winter 2006

The following states have active proposals or initiatives to consolidate rural districts and/or schools.
  • Arkansas. Following the State Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that the state's method of financing public education was unconstitutional, the legislature responded with a plan to force the consolidation of small school districts. Currently, districts with enrollment below 350 students for two consecutive years must find another district with which to merge. Since the rule was put in place, 57 small rural districts have been consolidated out of existence; and a number of newly merged districts have since closed all or part of the school in the former small district. In addition, the state can force the merger of districts that it deems to be in academic or fiscal distress.
  • Illinois. The governor and State Superintendent of Education have put forth a proposal to "make voluntary district consolidation easier." Illinois has 889 school districts, 404 of which are K-12 districts. The proposal would allow elementary-only districts to merge with their high school district if voters in their district approve. Currently, all elementary-only districts that feed the same high school must vote to approve a merger. However, under the new proposal, if one or more elementary-only district involved in a merger vote does not approve the merger, they would have five years to change their minds or find another high school to attend. The proposal would also allow elementary-only districts that feed the same high school district to merge with each other even if the districts are not contiguous. While the proposal governs district consolidation, some members of the state legislature are referring to it as a school consolidation measure.
  • Iowa. Widespread declining enrollment, very small districts, and pressure to improve high school test scores (especially ACT) in a state with historically high scores and a rapidly changing demographic base has sparked talk of consolidation in Iowa. The state has encouraged inter-local cooperation (locally known as "sharing") in many ways for a long time, including adding pupil weight counts in the aid formula for districts that share administrators, teachers, or students. That provision, however, will phase out this year, and a temporary "budget guarantee" that holds districts with declining enrollment harmless will end this summer. Governor Vilsack is pushing tougher graduation requirements, as well as a statewide core curriculum authorized in the 2005 legislature and scheduled for definition and adoption by the State Board of Education this May. Both the governor and the Institute for Tomorrow's Work Force are pushing regional high schools. Most of the criticism of very small schools is based on ACT scores lower than the state average. But one-third of the public schools ranked in the top 50 in AP test scores have fewer than 100 graduates per year. In addition, a higher percentage of students in small districts than in the state as a whole take the ACT even though small districts have higher rates of poverty than all but the very largest districts. And, only six of the 94 schools failing the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of NCLB this year are located in rural communities or towns with fewer than 25,000 residents.
  • Kansas. The Kansas Legislative Post Audit Committee and the Legislative Division of Post Audit, the audit arm of state government, released in January a report that presents two new alternatives for funding schools. Both methods eliminate or reduce weights for most small district size, add significant weights for urban poverty but not rural poverty, and create a cost of living adjustment for salaries that increases funding for many urban and suburban districts. The net result in both cases is a reduction of state funding to rural small schools and districts. When compared to these formulas, 174 of the state's nearly 300 districts appear to be "over-funded."  Almost all of these districts are small and rural. Some observers challenge the basic assumptions of the study, which was conducted as part of the legislative response to a state Supreme Court order to improve the way Kansas finances schools. The study has intensified calls for measures to reduce the number of school districts in the state. However, the state has already reduced school district numbers dramatically: in the 1960s, Kansas initiated a massive round of consolidation and eliminated several thousand districts.
  • Kentucky. While there are no current legislative initiatives regarding consolidation, mechanisms are in place to coerce district and school consolidation. The majority of districts are countywide and while counties are relatively small in Kentucky, difficult terrain in the mountainous eastern third of the state makes them effectively much larger. Since enactment of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (1990), considerable funding has been available for both direct grants and bonding capacity for local school construction projects. However, these projects must be approved through a state process that has effectively forced consolidation in a number of instances. In addition to 120 countywide districts, there are 56 "independent" (city) districts in Kentucky, physically located within a county but autonomous. These include some large and medium size towns, but most are small and many are rural. The smaller independent districts are being fiscally starved under the current funding formula, and there's been much talk in recent years that some independent districts might be forced to become part of their surrounding county district. This issue is one thread in the current school finance debate.
  • Maine. In November 2005, a "select panel" commissioned by the Maine State Board of Education released a draft of a report designed to improve education. This draft report includes recommendations for administrative consolidation that would reduce Maine's 286 School Administrative Districts to 35. In addition, the report recommends creating elementary/middle schools of 350 students and high schools of 450 students. Currently as many as 460 of Maine's 645 schools are under these size recommendations. Recent changes to the school funding formula, know as Essential Programs and Services, have reduced state funding to a large percentage of Maine's small and rural districts and many rural advocates view the formula as a means to pressure small districts into consolidation.
  • Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature has introduced a variety of initiatives to force and to induce consolidation among the state's approximately 500 school districts. In 2005, the legislature passed a bill requiring all 209 elementary-only Class I school districts to consolidate with a K-12 district by June 1, 2006. Opponents successfully won the right to put the initiative to statewide referendum in November 2006. A court injunction stayed the legislation until after the November election, but the State appealed and a decision is pending from the State Supreme Court. Also pending is a bill to alter the state's school funding system. If approved, the bill would provide additional funds to meat-packing towns with high poverty and high percentages of English Language Learners. But it would shift money away from small school districts in remote areas to other small school districts.
         Two other provisions would hurt small rural districts; one, a euphemistically named "local choice" provision, would reduce state per pupil support to districts with fewer than 390 students. The second would increase support to districts with above average percentages of teachers with advanced degrees. This second provision would harm rural districts located far from colleges where teachers can earn advanced degrees, and it would harm those low-wealth districts (where pay is also usually low) that have high levels of teacher turnover and high percentages of teachers who are new and, therefore, less experienced and less credentialed. It would reward high-wealth districts with older and more experienced teachers and those close to urban centers and teacher training institutions. The Education Committee of the unicameral legislature has killed several bills that would have helped rural school districts, including bills that would add a "size adjustment factor" to districts with fewer than 900 students; a bill that would hold harmless from the previous year districts with rapidly declining enrollment; and, a bill to determine the actual costs of achieving Nebraska's "essential education" mandates.
  • South Carolina. Following a court order to provide high quality preschool programs and improve education for poor children in grades K-3, some South Carolina legislators have proposed consolidation of school districts as a way to save money that could be spent for these court-ordered purposes. They propose a commission to recommend which of the state's 85 districts to consolidate. The proposal was put forth even though a 2004 Legislative Audit Committee study reported that little would be gained by consolidation and a 2003 Education Oversight Committee report that concluded consolidation might improve efficiency, but also might lower student achievement.
  • South Dakota. A number of proposals pushing consolidation of school districts were introduced in the South Dakota legislature in the 2006 session. Most were defeated, but many observers think that similar proposals will be introduced next year. Some of the measures have been recommended for inclusion in the Education State Aid Task Force Interim Study by the State Department of Education that is expected to file a report later this year; that report is widely expected to introduce changes to the formula that would spur consolidation. The measures introduced this session included a bill that would end state funding altogether of school districts with fewer than 100 high school students (over 40% of districts), unless the district was at least 600 square miles in size and located more than 30 miles from the nearest high school. This particular measure would not only have forced districts to merge, it would also have required the consolidation of high schools. Other defeated measures would have: reduced the number of districts from 168 to 10; created a special state commission to develop a statewide school consolidation plan; and, ended the ability of districts to cooperate in offering athletic programs unless they were more than 20 miles apart.
  • Texas. The state House Committee on Education is currently studying district consolidation and is scheduled to present a report by July 4, 2006. The study, one of several undertaken in response to a State Supreme Court ruling that the state's tax system for financing schools is unconstitutional, will look at the possibility of reducing the number of districts in Texas from the current 1,031. About two-thirds of those districts are located in rural areas or small towns, and about half have enrollments under 700.
  • West Virginia. The School Building Authority controls school construction in West Virginia and has pursued one of the nation's most aggressive school consolidation policies. It provides funding only for schools of 1,000 or more students; if the district doesn't have 1,000 students, funding will only be provided for a school that serves all the district's students in that grade span. Nearly 400 schools have been closed since 1990 in West Virginia's 55 countywide school districts. More than 100 more are currently targeted. Consolidation of rural schools continues, despite the governor calling for an end to consolidation, citizens' groups in several counties suing to block the consolidation of schools, and education writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn at the Charleston Gazette winning awards for their investigative reporting documenting the harmful impact of consolidation on rural students and refuting the claims of consolidation advocates for wider course offerings and financial savings.

Breaking the Mold: Policies that Support Rural Education

Not all states are pursuing consolidation initiatives. Some states have provisions that support rural and small schools. Some states have a mix of policies, some of which promote consolidation and some that provide some democratic protections for rural people and children and their schools. Some of the more common practices and policies that improve education in rural communities include:
  • Additional funding for small schools and/or districts. Twenty-eight states (as of FY 99) provide some sort of additional funding for small size. These states recognize, to a greater or lesser extent, that some costs remain relatively fixed for most schools, and they help accommodate these fixed costs through their finance formula. Some states provide a per pupil weight for schools or districts below a certain size. Other states provide additional funding at the school or district level. North Dakota provides additional funding for both small schools and small districts.
  • Sparsity funding. Separate from small size funding, some states provide additional funding for districts where population is less than a certain number of people (or students) per square mile. Some states, California for example, provide additional funding for "necessary" or "isolated" small schools that are distant from or inaccessible to other communities.
  • Declining Enrollment Factors. Some states help cushion the impact of declining enrollment. Kansas provides per pupil funding based on the higher of either a three-year rolling average of enrollment or enrollment in the previous year. Finance formulas in Wisconsin and Vermont hold districts harmless from the previous year.
  • Inter-local Sharing Incentives. Some states encourage inter-local cooperation as an alternative to consolidation. Iowa has promoted whole-grade sharing and North Dakota offers a wide range of financial incentives to districts that enter inter-local sharing agreements that cut per pupil costs.
  • Limits on bus times. A few states place limits on the length of time a student can ride a bus each day.
  • Voter approval required. New York, Illinois, and several other states require voters in all districts affected by consolidation to approve the measure before it can go forward.
  • Encouragement of "Sharing" Arrangements. Several states encourage schools and/or districts to share staff, services, distance learning technology, or athletic teams. Iowa has provided additional funding to districts that participate in specified sharing arrangements, although that funding is ending. South Dakota allows districts to form athletic coops to share sports teams. New York's BOCES units facilitate shared purchasing, professional development, and other services.

A few states have active initiatives or proposals that support rural small schools.

For example:
  • Louisiana. The state of Louisiana produced a paper examining the impact of consolidation and concluded, based on the research evidence, that consolidation is not in the best interests of students, communities, or the state. School consolidation remains a decision of local boards of education, most of which are parish-wide, but it is not actively pressured by the state. The paper is available at
  • Oklahoma. A bi-partisan group of state legislators have proposed a constitutional amendment that would prevent school district consolidation without the approval of voters in each district affected. If passed by the legislature, the amendment would go to statewide vote.
  • Wyoming. Wyoming has a finance formula that recognizes the strengths and values of small schools and provides funding to protect those strengths.

There are occasions when consolidation is necessary and advisable. The Rural Trust has formulated the following standards to guide state accountability in reorganization actions.

Rural Trust's Rural School District Reorganization Standards

State plans to reorganize rural schools or school districts should result in an organizational structure that is accountable to the following standards:
  1. Maintains and improves small schools, making them more cost-effective.
  2. Provides funding for each school sufficient to meet program and outcome standards as defined by the state and to provide each child with an equal opportunity to achieve.
  3. Retains or places schools within communities and avoids placing them in isolated open country.
  4. Provides maximum participation in school governance by communities served by the school and the school district and requires community approval of school closings.
  5. Honors and reinforces a policy of racial desegregation.
  6. Makes best use of appropriate distance learning technologies to share students and faculty, enriching curriculum and instruction without enlarging schools or transporting students.
  7. Reduces disparity between districts in local tax capacity and effort.
  8. Protects children from bus rides exceeding 30 minutes each way for elementary students and one hour each way for high school students.
  9. Maximizes regional cooperation between districts, such as regional education service centers, to provide high-cost, low-demand services efficiently to schools and/or students who require them.
  10. Strengthens local economic and community development and supports and is supported by community patterns of work and commerce.

The foregoing list is not prioritized. Where circumstances produce a conflict between the standards, state policy should seek to resolve the conflict and to achieve optimum compliance with all conflicting standards.