Report critical of school consolidation rebutted by state officials

Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe testifies before the House Education Committee on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe testifies before the House Education Committee on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger

A report critical of school consolidation created a stir before the researchers even got to the Statehouse.

State officials took issue with a report written by two Vermonters who are doctoral candidates at Penn State University, and rebutted it in a page-by-page analysis before the researchers arrived on Thursday to present scheduled testimony.

Researchers Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford say school consolidation will not solve Vermont’s educational system challenges and they argue that small schools “are one of the state’s strengths, not a problem, and should be capitalized to sustain local communities.”

The researchers, who both have taught in small, rural, New England schools, Burfoot-Rochford at the Cabot School and Hall in Maine, take a dim view of forced consolidation in their report, but note that voluntary consolidations in communities can have successful outcomes. Hall and Burfoot-Rochford propose tiered funding of the Small Schools Grants, which they say will help to build school and community capacity.

Read the Penn State policy brief

Read the Agency of Education’s rebuttal

Hall and Burfoot-Rochford urged lawmakers to adopt legislation that takes into account “the role of rural schools in stabilizing their encompassing communities; the value of smaller schools in supporting low-income students and families; (and) increasing data collection and transparency to facilitate informed decision making for schools and communities.”

Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Agency of Education, and Wendy Geller, the agency’s data administration director, say the policy brief from the Penn State researchers misrepresents peer-reviewed research on school consolidation and it relies on a “narrow undertanding of what governance involves, appears unacquainted with existing data on Vermont, and fails to acknowledge the diversity of circumstances small towns in our state experience.”

Holcombe and Geller say the Penn State brief to the Legislature “suggests that research on consolidation does not support the current conversation Vermont is trying to have about how to provide high-quality opportunities for our children at an affordable price, in a way that reflects the values and priorities of our communities.”

The Penn State study relies on national definitions that set the bar for small school district enrollments at 275 or less. All of Vermont’s school districts are small to medium-sized, according to Holcombe and Geller. Nearly 70 percent of Vermont school districts have enrollments of 300 or fewer students. About half have an average daily membership of 100 or fewer students. The peer-reviewed literature on district consolidation shows there are efficiencies to be gained when districts have 1,500 students or more.

The state is encouraging school districts to merge and is leaving school consolidation and closure decisions up to local communities, Holcombe has said.

“The challenge in Vermont is that, given our finite resources, declining student base, and declining number of taxpayers, we are left with the question of how we can support all those ends in a way we can actually afford,” Holcombe said in the commentary.

Holcombe said while the report accurately describes the strong connection between schools and communities, she dismissed the idea of competitive small school grants because it would pit tiny schools that have no local resources against schools in commmunities that have more economic means.

The researchers said they are not economists or financial experts, but are rural education specialists who have devoted their doctoral work to the study, and they were presenting their proposal from that vantage, but did not have dollar figures to accompany their proposal.

The Penn State team offered a rebuttal to the Agency of Education in testimony before House and Senate Education Committees on Thursday.

“The AOE argues district consolidation has been found to have financial benefits due to economies of scale,” Hall and Burfoot-Rochford said in a joint response. “Our stance, however, is that empirical evidence for the economic benefits of consolidation are inconsistent. Through our policy brief, we highlight some of the potential pitfalls of consolidation, including unanticipated costs. The researchers say closing small schools will harm student achievement and cause econmomic damage to communities.

Hall said Vermont has some very successful small schools, and “I’ve come to realize that some of the best schools in the nation are in Vermont, and I wanted to find out what makes them so successful.”

Hall said their research has attempted to analyze why some schools are “extremely successful in eliminating the achievement gap” while other schools are struggling to do so.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, asked the researchers, “Did you start out this study with your own belief and attempt to prove your belief?”

Hall said they started wide open to possibilities, but said, “We are rural educators, so we obviously come from that side; we like rural schools.”

Amy Ash Nixon

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