Kansas never really consolidated its schools. The 1950s and 1960s saw widespread school consolidation across the United States as one and two-room rural school houses were replaced with modern buildings and rooms for each grade. But, while Kansas has one percent of the nation’s students, it has 2.1 percent of the nation’s school districts. Kansas barely went halfway compared to other states.
That was the conclusion of Augenblick and Myers, a $200,000 study commissioned by the Kansas Legislature in 2002. At that same time, two Kansas superintendents at Pratt and Manhattan used a model based on our Kansas regional hospitals that serve as a “hub” to rural clinics; they proposed a model of regional school districts.
However, school consolidation has been a high-voltage “third rail.” No elected official wants to touch if for fear of being recalled, let alone not winning the next election. Consolidation is a money-saving tactic because K-12 education consumes over half of our state tax dollars. Calls for smaller government are really calls for smaller education. I have no regard for legislators who value pocket money over education and who have shown little respect for teachers and the mission of education.
But I do have concerns for the quality of education that Kansas students receive. And that is where school consolidation takes on a new perspective.
The number of teachers who retire, leave teaching or leave the state is increasing while the number of student teachers in many subjects is decreasing. As a result, more unqualified teachers are being hired to fill teacher vacancies. While rich suburban districts hire the fewer qualified candidates, many smaller rural districts have little alternative to hiring unqualified teachers.
There are still USDs where the whole kindergarten-through-high school is in one building and barely ten students graduate per year. A high school with 40 students cannot hire in-field teachers in every academic area. Kansas has an Option A second-field system where student teachers can take the equivalent of two minors and teach math-and-chemistry or English-and-social sciences. But teachers who are less-trained in their fields have less ability to teach their subject. –Chemistry without labs. —Math teachers who don’t understand calculus. –Students less-prepared to attend college.
This shortage is growing so much that cheap solutions such as alternate route, test-in, and transfer-from-science-careers options have been provided but are falling short of filling the vacancies. With 80 vacancies in chemistry teachers and less than 20 new chemistry teachers graduating from teacher programs, school administrators have to put someone in the classroom. They have maxed-out their ability to send veteran teachers back to add second field licenses. (Over half of last year’s initial science teacher licenses were from test-ins). Very few are on provisional licenses leading to full licensure. Nor are they getting waivers. I can only describe the growing number of persons heading some science classes in Kansas as “Cousin Bubbas” and the value of their students’ science credits is highly questionable.
That is where consolidation helps solve our growing teacher shortage. It could provide the next generation of Kansas students with more qualified teachers and higher quality education.
There are many cases where a county contains two or three school districts. Where small rural high schools have very small class sizes, hubbing high school students from elementary schools into one regional high school can bring students to a well-trained teacher and well-equipped lab. Prior studies show that such a hub system—widely used in other states for more than half a century—can operate with students not riding a school bus more than an hour. Most communities could maintain their elementary schools and in some cases their middle schools. The important factor is that our students would gain a better education.
The major cost of schooling is in salaries. Consolidation provides efficiencies-in-scale by eliminating some of the administrative duplication of multiple small USDs. There are initial costs as regional high schools would expand, but that expansion is limited when most of rural Kansas is losing population.
Currently, Kansas lists over 700 biology teachers but I calculate that barely 500 are qualified. If the good teachers with full credentials are pulled to the hub schools, and if the KSDE audits credentials on-site, our students get a better education. And that is what counts.