New Report Finds Consolidation More Likely to Yield Harm Than Benefit

Last Updated: February 28, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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A report released this month offers the most comprehensive analysis of research on school and district consolidation to date. The highly readable report, “Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means” presents information useful to both community residents and policymakers. It also includes a detailed bibliography helpful to anyone seeking research evidence on a variety of issues related to this highly pertinent topic.

The report finds that in many places schools and districts are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality and that “deconsolidation is more likely to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield substantial improved outcomes” (p 11). Any consolidation or deconsolidation should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.

The report also finds that claims about the financial and educational benefits of widespread consolidation are not supported by contemporary research and are usually based on “dangerous oversimplifications.”

Key Issues

Consolidation, especially district consolidation, is often proposed as a policy initiative during economic downturns. The current context is no exception.

“Consolidation of Schools and Districts” looks at the issue from several key perspectives, beginning with a definition of what consolidation entails. A brief historical analysis of consolidation’s early history, goals, and proponents helps frame an interpretation of the research and provides perspective on current consolidation initiatives.

Particularly interesting is the report’s description of “econometric” research; that is, research that focuses on the economic aspects of consolidation. Unlike studies of school quality, economic research looks only at fiscal outcomes and does not factor in issues like student and parent participation or community support, important educational matters that cannot be easily quantified in dollars. Nor does most of the econometric research account for the negative effects of consolidation documented in research on school quality — effects like more dangerous school environments, lower graduation rates, lower achievement for low-income students and wider achievement gaps. Nevertheless, this research finds that “financial claims about widespread benefits of consolidations are unsubstantiated by contemporary research about cost savings” (p 11).

One recent study discussed in “Consolidation of Schools and Districts,” however, does directly link the effects of changes in elementary school size to student achievement. It found that increasing the size of Indiana elementary schools led to significantly lower student achievement and predicted future economic costs that outweighed any potential savings.

Another important section of the report focuses on the “experience” of consolidation by students, families, school leaders/proponents, and communities. Students and families in schools that are closed are more likely to experience harm than are students and families in schools that “receive” students from consolidated schools, report the authors.

The most dramatic effect of school and district consolidation is often on communities. “Put simply, the loss of a school erodes a community’s social and economic base — its sense of community, identity and democracy — and the loss permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment” (p. 9).

This effect is particularly strong in low-wealth communities. “Specifically, low-wealth and minority populations tend to be inordinately and negatively affected by consolidation initiatives. Consolidation proposals involving low-wealth and minority communities especially need to be carefully reviewed, with community participation strongly cultivated. Similarly, any deconsolidation should be done with an eye toward enhancing community and family well-being in poor and minority communities” (p. 10).

The report concludes with recommendations, including specific suggestions for alternatives to consolidation for improving fiscal efficiency or educational services.

Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means” is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding key aspects of successful schools as well as for anyone interested in consolidation issues.

The report, “Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means” was authored by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie and released in February by the National Education Policy Center, Boulder, Colorado. It is also available at

Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.