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Counterpoint: Consolidation education


Kurt Hochenauer May 28th, 2009

The debate over school consolidation continues in Oklahoma, but consolidation is hardly the financial panacea presented by its proponents. School consolidation is often a sign that a small, rural O...

The debate over school consolidation continues in Oklahoma, but consolidation is hardly the financial panacea presented by its proponents.

School consolidation is often a sign that a small, rural Oklahoma community is no longer viable and must give up its schools, but that doesn't mean state leaders should give up on these places.

Sometimes, the state should help a rural community by keeping their schools open. Why not?

So, one philosophical question about school consolidation is this: Should the state and federal governments, in the form of public schools and other programs, help out the state's rural communities, or should they allow small towns to simply die off? Schools often serve as the anchors that provide small communities with an identity. Without them, a community can fade into oblivion.

For the 2008-2009 school year, the morning bell rang at 426 K-12 and 107 K-8 public school districts in the state, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. At one time, Oklahoma had 5,880 school districts, according to a 2008 report from the education department. This was in the beginning of the state's history, when transportation was problematic.

It's highly probable that more Oklahoma school districts will become consolidated in the future, but it's wrong to force consolidation. The Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools, formed in 1984, has it right. It remains "opposed to "¦ legislation that mandates consolidation or combining administrative units based on number of students, number of districts and/or size (square miles) of a district," according to its Web site.

Proponents argue the state would save by eliminating or combining administrative positions, but the money saved would be negligible on a relative basis, and the state actually needs to increase funding to all its schools, rural or urban.

Many rural administrators also serve their schools in other capacities, and this can save school districts money. The idea that there are a countless number of Oklahoma school administrators with cushy jobs just raking in the dough is a political mythology presented by consolidation proponents.

Those in favor of consolidation also argue that students get a better education in consolidated schools, but small class sizes in rural schools and new online technologies that can deliver long-distance educational opportunities refute that generalized argument.

Didn't the recent school deregulation bill, which was pushed by Republicans, contradict consolidation because it decentralized the role of state government's involvement with public school districts? Yet, GOP leaders from urban areas are often the main proponents.

Tom Brokaw, the former "NBC Nightly News" anchor, recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times that argued Iowa should consolidate some of the functions of its 99 counties.

His argument could have applied to Oklahoma's 77 counties or its 533 school districts. On paper, these arguments can seem logically convincing, but the reality is the state and country benefit from thriving, agricultural-based, rural communities.

So, as the debate goes on, the larger question about rural Oklahoma looms: If a forced consolidation movement could get any political traction, how many small towns would die?

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.

 
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