Thomas A. Lyson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Development Sociology, has recently found that small schools are vital to rural communities and that consolidating them into larger districts can be detrimental to the health of the affected towns.
In the January 2005 special report from the Southern Rural Development Center, Lyson stated that school consolidation has haunted rural communities for the past 50 years. In that time, the number of school districts nationwide has shrunk from 130,000 in 1930 to less than 15,000 in 2000. Lyson stated that this decline in school districts first began with the idea that larger schools lead to more efficiency and a higher quality of education. However, although this idea has been dismissed since 1970, school consolidation has continued as supporters believe that fewer schools can benefit small rural economies, despite evidence that school consolidation can harm communities.
“The idea that school consolidation will benefit a community is a myth. People think they are getting more bang for the buck,” Lyson said.
According to Lyson’s article in the Journal of Research in Rural Education, closing small schools hurts the community’s well-being and drives out businesses. In this study, Lyson examined both large and small incorporated villages in New York State. The study reported that the social and economic welfare was higher in communities where a school was present, although small communities benefited more from a school’s presence.
“Property values go down and really small communities are most affected,” Lyson said.
Lyson showcased these differences between community size and the importance of educational institutions. While larger communities many times contained parks, libraries, and service organizations, smaller communities often lacked these institutions, leading to a greater reliance on schools for social and cultural events. Thus, when schools were lacking in these small communities, income inequality and welfare dependence were the most dramatic, demonstrating the profound impact of the school in small rural villages.
“Schools are vital to rural communities as they forge community identities” Lyson said. “They are important civic institutions.”
Lyson also said that school consolidation is still a large problem, as it is “really happening in the Midwest due to the decline in agriculture. Communities see it as a savings, but it really isn’t. The value of one community goes up, but others go down.”
Melina Carnicelli, the assistant to the superintendent of the Ithaca School District, said she feels similarly about the need to maintain small schools. Recently, the Ithaca community has been examining the district’s population in order to create new districts for Ithaca’s eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools.
“Through all the discussions, there has not been any recommendation to close any of the schools,” Carnicelli said.
Carnicelli continued, saying that the Ithaca school system is extremely important to the community, reinforcing Lyson’s findings that schools can be important civic infrastructure.
“People are very involved and there are very active PTA counsels throughout the district,” Carnicelli said.
Carnicelli also said that to call the school district vital to the community would be a “huge understatement.”
According to a Cornell News Service press release, Lyson’s study, which was published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education in 2002, was recently presented in the January 2005 special report from the Southern Rural Development Center, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research and the Rural School and Community Trust.
Archived article by Jacquelyn Nastri