Monday, February 02, 2004



I don’t think anybody would dispute it: the schools in disadvantaged areas of the Omaha Public Schools are a mess. The achievement gap between the races has been horrible and indefensible for years. Busing was a costly failure and damaged the community cohesiveness that is so important in K-12 education.

OPS recently got its taxpayers to pour a half a billion dollars, with interest, into school construction, but there’s no evidence anywhere that spending more money on K-12 education correlates to higher student achievement. We’re spending more and more and more, and getting less and less and less.

So why on earth would we want to do the same thing to the tiny jewels in the crown of Nebraska education – our small schools, which post higher levels of student achievement than our larger schools despite facing greater barriers to success, not the least of which is a scrawny tax base?

Research is showing more and more that small schools, run right, can be far more cost-effective and provide much higher quality outcomes for kids than larger schools.

More importantly, rural schools are often high-poverty schools. We know that kids from low-income homes need the warmth and personal touch of the small-school setting to overcome the disadvantages of poverty. Poverty is a key reason Nebraska’s larger school systems aren’t doing so hot right now. But, the data show clearly, poverty makes little or no difference in the smaller districts.

Think about it.

Why would we want to break up these rural children’s neighborhood “feel,” bus those kids far away, put extra stress on the marginal academic performers, and nuke their hometown’s centerpiece, which is what a small-town school means in terms of social and political life? Again, recognizing that there’s no evidence from anywhere that the kids are better off afterwards.

If we force these consolidations, we are likely to be setting those kids up to be just like the kids from northeast Omaha. Come on, now. Nobody wants that.

The idea of forced consolidation of the state’s Class I, or “elementary-only,” districts will come up at a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 1525 of the Capitol, as the Legislature’s education committee considers the fate of those 241 country schools, and whether they should be merged into a K-12 district by 2005-06.

I say they shouldn’t.

Now, I know I recently suggested it might be wise to consolidate two smaller districts, Valley and Waterloo. But in that case, the issue is quality. In contrast to the Class I schools, which consistently post better than average scores on standardized tests, student achievement in both Waterloo and Valley is pretty bad, considering their demographics.

Waterloo kids averaged 21.7 on the ACT, far below the state average of 22.6, which isn’t so hot itself, considering that 36 is the best score possible and you get a 10, I believe, just for showing up. Waterloo’s reading and math performance on standardized tests in lower grades is disappointing, with a majority of its secondary-level students scoring below the national average. Valley isn’t much better, with an ACT of 22.1 and as many as 46 percent of its students below the national average in at least one measure, grades 3-5 math.

You can check out the data for yourself on the Nebraska State Department of Education website, www.nde.state.ne.us

Meanwhile, Waterloo and Valley both spend a pretty penny per pupil. I say that’s not good, old-fashioned, cost-effective Nebraska-style education. Something needs to change. Consolidation in this case is likely to bring on economies of scale and cost-effectiveness.

But it’s not the same story with most of these grade-school-only schools. You can read more about their outstanding academic performance in these two fact-packed reports from the Rural School and Community Trust:

-- Nebraska's Small School Systems: An Educational Treasure, At Least When Adequately Funded

-- Small Works in Nebraska: How Poverty and the Size of School Systems Affect School Performance in Nebraska

They’re available on:


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