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Greene: On Babies and Bathwater

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At first glance, it makes fiscal - and even educational - sense to close Vermont’s smallest schools.

The savings in overhead alone are alluring, especially since larger schools seem to offer so many more opportunities both in and outside the classroom. But Dover Selectman Vicki Capitani points out that even if the 100 smallest schools in the state were closed, that would only account for 4.6% of the total state spending on schools.

And a study at Ohio University by Craig Howley shows that smaller schools may be better than larger ones at closing the achievement gap between low and higher income students. In fact, both the Dover and Montgomery elementary schools have managed to eliminate the achievement gap that vexes educators nationwide.

Daniella Hall, doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Pennsylvania State University, studies rural schools in Vermont and cites research indicating that transportation costs, up-leveling salaries across new districts, and building new central schools might well obliterate savings.

The Vermont Agency of Education has issued two rebuttals to Hall’s study, stressing that the Vermont school situation is inherently different from the studies cited in Hall’s work. But Hall was attracted to study Vermont schools in the first place precisely because they produce such high quality results through such a stunning diversity of approaches.

Hall admits there’s a gap in Vermont-specific data on post consolidation transportation costs. And while it’s generally held that small schools lack the range of opportunity offered by larger ones, Hall says this assumption is largely hypothetical, since there isn’t much formal research or analysis available on the range of course offerings in Vermont high schools.

Research on extra-curricular opportunities in small schools is also limited, but one study actually suggests that while fewer activities may be offered at smaller schools, those that are may afford students more leadership roles, and kids’ participation may be greater in smaller schools.

Finally, Hall reminds us that it’s very hard to undo consolidation – and Maine is the only state that’s even attempted it.

But one thing Secretary of Education Holcombe and Hall do agree on is that a lot of harm could be done by rushing into ill-considered legislation. As a state, we have yet to define what a good basic education is – whether it includes an ice hockey program, a working knowledge of European history or advanced calculus.

And until we decide that, we not only don’t know what we’re buying with our education dollars, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater altogether. 

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