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Nebraska Study Faults Push for Consolidation

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The continuing debate in Nebraska over rural-school consolidation "has poisoned the well'' of education "so deeply that a dramatic purging will be required to cleanse the whole system,'' a new study sympathetic to rural interests concludes.

The report, commissioned by a group of rural school districts, charges that educators and lawmakers in the state have given too much attention to issues of school organization and too little to school quality.

As a consequence, reform efforts in Nebraska have stalled while other states have moved forward, a situation that threatens to "relegate the Cornhusker State to relative mediocrity almost overnight,'' says the report, written by the rural-school advocate and author Jonathan P. Sher.

Opponents of consolidation say the report provides them with ammunition in what some are calling a new offensive to reject state pressure to close small rural schools.

The report criticizes the state's lack of data on school and student performance, and its use of conventional measurements of school efficiency that, Mr. Sher charges, have a built-in anti-rural bias.

The study calls for more state aid to schools, greater cooperation among rural and urban districts, and statewide research on indicators of school quality.

Shift of Power Base

Nebraska's rural-urban debate is one that is being repeated across the country, Mr. Sher said in an interview.

"There's very little that an educator in Iowa would not be able to identify with in looking at the kinds of issues with which Nebraska is confronted,'' Mr. Sher said.

"Nebraska's educational leadership has bought into the conventional wisdom about what education is supposed to be in America,'' he said. "They have tried to take the general model and shoehorn it in to fit both rural and urban needs, but it doesn't fit very well.''

The report, "Class Dismissed: Examining Nebraska's Rural Education Debate,'' was released on March 23 by the Rural Community Schools Association, a group of 210 of the state's 360 K-12 districts.

The study notes that although about a third of Nebraska's students continue to attend schools in what are classified as rural districts, the state's political and economic power base has shifted from rural to urban areas.

The debate over consolidation is a result of that shift of power, says the report. Urban educators charge that rural schools are not cost-efficient, while rural educators contend their schools are vital to their communities.

Replicas of City Schools

The report argues that state officials, rather than finding ways to improve rural schools, have developed plans to make rural schools larger and more standardized, "like miniature replicas of the metropolitan model of education.''

Research has found no relationship between academic achievement and "fancy school buildings with lots of good stuff inside,'' the report notes.

Moreover, it says, several of the nation's most prominent reform advocates support a movement toward a smaller and more focused curriculum, with an emphasis on teacher quality--the very hallmarks of rural education.

Nebraska's small schools may offer fewer courses, but can have more individualized instruction because their pupil-teacher ratios average about 8 to 1, compared with 17 to 1 in large districts.

As a result, the report asserts, rural schools have more "holding power.'' Dropout rates are much lower in the small districts; the state's two largest districts, Omaha and Lincoln, accounted for more than half of the state's dropouts, the study found.

Students in rural schools also consistently outscore their urban counterparts on standardized tests, the report notes. The highest scores in the state on the American College Testing program in 1985 were made by graduates of Nebraska's three smallest groups of school systems.

Although Mr. Sher admits that S.A.T. test scores were not meant to be used as a measurement of school quality, he says they are one of very few yardsticks of student achievement available in the state.

"There is virtually no data on student outcomes in Nebraska,'' the report says. "If ignorance is bliss, Nebraskans should feel positively ecstatic about what is known about the educational performance of their children.''

Mr. Sher's report comes on the heels of another study that criticized the state's lack of educational "output'' data. That report was issued by the legislature's education committee. (See Education Week, March 23, 1988.)

School Efficiency

Mr. Sher's study also examined the efficiency and the economics of small schools, an issue urban educators use, he said, to call rural schools wasteful.

Equating per-pupil costs with efficiency is unfair to rural districts, Mr. Sher writes, because the cost of providing services to fewer students is inevitably higher.

For example, the study says, the Hayes Center Public Schools, with only 174 students, spent $4,744 per student in 1985, compared with a state average of $3,056. But the district had to spend about $720 per student for transportation, compared with the statewide average of $130.

Consolidating schools to achieve "efficiency,'' Mr. Sher writes, "will not make sparsely populated areas into metropolitan ones.''

The fact that schools in sparsely populated areas cost more "needs to be acknowledged and accepted in Nebraska,'' he asserts.

Copies of Mr. Sher's report are available for $4.95 each from the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, 613 Nelson, P.O. Box 157, Hildreth, Neb. 68947.

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