Monday, September 26, 2011

School Choice: Another One Bites the Dust

One of my favorite ewes prolapsed recently and my only recourse was to haul her to the stockyards at New Wilmington as a cull. To get her to the auction this morning, I drove past the recently closed East Lawrence Elementary School. This well built and recently renovated brick building was closed for declining enrollment. The First, Second, and Third Graders from the surrounding townships will now endure a 45+ minute bus ride to a bigger elementary school. Ironically, I also passed a one room private school that is bursting at the seams with happy kids.

I recently worked with a Borough that is trying to keep its small elementary schools open in spite of a district that also thinks bigger is better. In this case, the new policy would be to drive buses along the sidewalks to pick up small children and haul them out to the suburbs. Seems better to me to let the kids walk two blocks to a small school. If safety is an issue, a chaperon could be hired at less the cost of a CDL bus driver, and the chaperon could run on caffeine, rather than expensive diesel. A few communites are trying this "walking School Bus" approach.

In the course of my professional career, I worked with two school districts. Both wanted to manipulate demographic projections to help maximize construction projects that architecture firms were selling. The architects who consult for school districts make no money telling a school district their facilities are sufficient, so they have to sell consolidation; in spite of:

Evidence by the center for Rural Pennsylvania that consolidation yields no advantage of economy of scale.

Growing evidence that small schools are better learning environments

From my perspective as a community planner, I see closing a neighborhood or small rural school as an insult to the community and its taxpayers (both living and dead). Citizens were asked to pay for the construction and maintenance of a building which is now cast off like a dirty handkerchief. There is also often an undercurrent in these decisions that the town or rural area is not important enough to rate its own school, and the children have to be shipped out to somewhere worth spending their time. If not an insult, I must conclude that school board members lack the backbone to resist the sales talk of consolidators. Or do school boards lack the intelligence to figure out it might be more effective to shift grades and teachers instead of walking away from a significant physical investment?

I have watched a number of small town and rural schools close for the past 23 years. In most cases, the closing deals some hard blows to local economy and community identity. If any readers still have a small local school, treasure it. If you want to defend it run for the local school board. In Washington and Harrisburg, politicians harp a lot about school choice. How about the simple school choice to have a public school within reasonable proximity to the childrens' homes?


  1. Richard,

    Personally, I'm for the separation of school and state. But, practically speaking, I've long believed that kids in the one-room school houses of days gone by got a better education than they do in government schools of today. So I appreciate your comments here and especially the link to "Growing evidence that small schools are better learning environments."

    I'll pass this on to a friend of mine who, only a few months ago, told me he had calculated out what it would cost to build and financially support a one-room school house for a year for the kids in his neighborhood. If I recall right, he told me the school and property taxes he alone paid per year would pretty much take care of the expenses for a simple but adequate school building that would serve a lot of kids. I was surprised that he was thinking such a thing.

  2. Hi Herrick,
    I lived onto the one room school era in our school district, but I missed attending one by two years (when the District consolidated. Even country kids could walk to school.

    I have no doubt your friend's calculations are correct. I would love to see it happen somewhere. He will need to be prepared for strong objectors as I have a suspicion that actually educating children is no longer the objective of most school districts.