The February Kansas Legislative Post Audit (LPA) report addressed the economic “efficiencies” that can be gained by school consolidation. It is time to consider the academics.
Last year, ten districts had fewer than 100 students K-12. That makes class sizes very small. A middle school or high school teacher will have many “preps”—they will teach a different class each period. Such schools need teachers who can teach math-and-science or English-and-social studies.
But one teacher simply cannot prepare and deliver the specialized labwork for students across the range of 7th grade life science, 8th grade physical science, freshman biology, junior chemistry and senior physics. And small rural schools cannot provide the equipment and consumable supplies for each of these classes, compared to a larger school with separate chemistry, physics, and biology lab rooms.
Small class sizes and a sense of community help offset some deficiencies. But any teacher will tell you that teaching a different course each period is exhausting. Teaching such a wide spectrum stretches them beyond their expertise.
The tax shortfall has made this situation worse. When a teacher retires in a small school, the district cannot afford to fill that assignment. As a result, teachers in other fields must reach across to cover the class. The State Board of Education approved 277 waivers for teachers teaching out-of-field last November. A substantial portion of them were in rural schools. Medium and large schools can make class sizes bigger and move from six to five middle school science teachers. Smaller Kansas schools cannot.
The LPA report on consolidation poses two scenarios: one that would merge 56 USDs into 28 and a second that would merge USDs with fewer than 1,600 K–12 students (242 USDs merged into 100 USDs) for a total of 152 Kansas USDs. They calculated the economics. But what does it mean academically?
The LPA report provides maps of Kansas USDs before and after each consolidation scenario. I know many of the schools involved and can describe an anonymous case. Two little districts, I will call them East County USD and West County USD, have small schools with K–12 in one building. Each graduates less than 15 students a year. County Seat USD is centrally located and has many elementary schools and a substantial high school. Classes average over 20 students.
East County’s science classes have a licensed teacher but the science teacher at West County is teaching out-of-field. Both teach a different course each period, with small classes and with limited science lab facilities. Under the second LPA scenario for consolidation, these three USDs would become one USD, keeping the elementaries but sending all students to the County Seat high school. The qualified science teacher would move to the expanded high school, and the out-of-field science teacher would no longer be needed. Secondary students gain in having a qualified teacher and better equipped labs, but lose the small community atmosphere.
The LPA report calculates the savings from economies of scale and reduction in administration and teachers. Those gains must be weighed against the cost of new facilities (primarily expanding high schools) and transportation. And current law holds consolidated schools harmless from funding cuts for 3–5 years. Consolidation only saves money in the long term. But academics can improve immediately.
No decision is black-and-white. But academics should be part of the quality formula. I estimate that the Kansas need for secondary biology teachers, who have numbered about 700 for decades, could drop to about 640 under the second scenario. If the 60 lost were the unqualified out-of-field teachers, that would combine with better science facilities to benefit our future students. The overall estimate of 1,361 fewer teachers statewide would give administrators the opportunity to keep their best teachers in the classroom across all disciplines.