Falling enrolment = close surplus schools. Right? Wrong!
TheSpec.com – opinion
May 25, 2013. Bill Templeman
Across Canada, public school enrolment is dropping. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has more than 11,000 extra spaces in its 113 schools; board officials believe that up to 30 schools may have to be closed. The board believes it has no choice. This scenario is playing out across the country, with the exception of areas experiencing high immigration, mainly large metropolitan areas like Toronto.
For education planners and school boards, this means excess capacity and an opportunity to build more efficient alternatives. The conventional wisdom is to close half-empty schools. The preferred code words for “school closures” are “school consolidation.” Small neighbourhood schools with falling enrolment are being closed, with their students being bused to larger conglomerate schools. Busing kids to school is seen as a worthwhile trade-off to provide more modern facilities that can offer a larger range of courses. School consolidation is assumed to be a way of creating greater efficiencies, while providing enhanced opportunities for students. Both these assumptions are wrong. As the following research shows, closing schools doesn’t save money and the resulting large, bus-fed schools produce inferior academic and behavioural outcomes.
Researchers in the U.S. have shown that the savings touted by proponents of school consolidation rarely materialize once the small neighbourhood schools are closed. Why do Canadians refuse to learn from U.S. mistakes? Recent U.S. research (http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/PB-Consol-Howley-Johnson-Petrie.pdf) shows that the cost savings from school consolidation are not born out in fact:
“• In many places, schools and (school boards) are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality; deconsolidation is more likely than consolidation to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield improved outcomes
•Financial claims about widespread benefits of consolidation are unsubstantiated by research about cost savings. … The assumptions behind such claims are most often dangerous oversimplifications. School closures often result in extra costs due to more mid-level administration, added expenses of transportation, management, and the like
•Claims for educational benefits from systematic statewide school and (school board) consolidation are vastly overestimated and have already been maximized. Schools that are too large result in diminished academic and social performance ….
•Overall, state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes….”
Dr. Allan Lauzon, a researcher at the University of Guelph, concludes: “The literature has highlighted a number of issues that need to be considered in the context of … school closure and board consolidation.
“First, there is little empirical evidence for cost savings that can be realized through consolidation …. The literature reveals that this is a contentious issue and that differences in outcomes are dependent upon on how administrators and politicians calculate the costs and savings.
“The alleged savings that can be realized at this point appear to have more to do with rhetoric and ideology than it has to do with the empirical realities of what we currently know.”
If school consolidations do not save money or provide better learning outcomes for students, why are they unfolding with such disastrous regularity? Why are we wasting tax dollars on solutions that we know will not work?
What are impacts of these closures? Are there any policy alternatives to school consolidation? Consider:
Hill Park and the six other public high schools on the chopping block — Delta, Parkview, Sir John A. Macdonald, Mountain, Sherwood and Parkside — more than 100 community groups, sports teams and other organizations regularly use these buildings. What will be the impact of the loss of these schools?
One solution would be to seek partnerships with other education institutions, social service agencies, and community groups to establish multi-usage of school facilities and cost-sharing. Keep small neighbourhood schools open by sharing building space with others. Make more effective use of technology to provide enriched curriculum in smaller schools.
According to Dr. Kenneth Leithwood, of Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a high school with as few as 500 students can offer the core provincial curriculum. He concludes that, “Smaller schools are generally better for most purposes. The weight of evidence provided by this review favours smaller schools for a wide array of student outcomes and most organizational outcomes as well.”
Are government and school board leaders aware of these research findings concerning negative cost savings plus poor academic and behavioural outcomes for large, consolidated schools?
Why do board administrators choose to ignore these findings when they advise trustees on school closures? Are provincial ministers of education aware of these research findings? Or do these findings clash with an outdated ideology?
Bill Templeman is a consultant, college instructor and writer based in Peterborough. He is a co-ordinator of http://savelocalschools.com, a site for communities facing school closures.
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