Monday, September 9, 2013

Falling School Enrollment - This article appeared in the June 25, 2013 edition of the Peterborough Examiner.  Edited versions of this piece also appeared in the Hamilton Spectator and the Orillia Packet & Times

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Across Canada public school enrollment is dropping.  The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board is considering the closure of a number of facilities, including South Monaghan Public School.   During the 2006-2007 academic year, South Monaghan had an enrollment of 152 students.  This year that school’s enrollment dropped to 110, a decline of 28%.  The Board believes it has no choice.  This scenario is playing out across the country, with the exception of high-immigration areas such as Toronto.

For education planners and school boards, this means excess capacity and an opportunity to build more efficient alternatives.  The conventional wisdom is to close half-empty schools.  The preferred term for “school closure” is “school consolidation”.  Small neighbourhood schools with falling enrollment are being closed with their students being bused to much larger, consolidated schools.  Busing kids to school is seen as a worthwhile trade-off in order to provide more modern facilities that can offer a larger range of courses.   School consolidation is assumed to be a way of creating greater efficiencies while providing enhanced opportunities for students.  Both these assumptions are wrong.  As the following research shows, closing schools  
doesn't save money and the resulting large, bus-fed schools produce inferior academic and behavioural outcomes.
U.S. researchers have shown that the cost savings touted by proponents of school consolidation rarely materialize once the small neighbourhood schools are closed.   Why do Canadians steadfastly refuse to learn from U.S. mistakes?  Recent U.S. research ( shows that the cost savings from school consolidation are not born out in fact.

“• In many places, schools and (school boards) are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality; deconsolidation  is more likely than consolidation to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield improved outcomes
• Financial claims about widespread benefits of consolidation are unsubstantiated by contemporary research about cost savings …  The assumptions behind such claims are most often dangerous oversimplifications.   School closures often result in extra costs due to more mid-level administration, added expenses of transportation, management, and the like
• Claims for educational benefits from systematic statewide school and (school board) consolidation are vastly overestimated and have already been maximized. Schools that are too large result in diminished academic and social performance…
• Overall, state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes”

. Allan Lauzon, a researcher at the University of Guelph concludes. "The literature has highlighted a number of issues that need to be considered in the context of …. school closure and board consolidation.  First, there is little empirical evidence for cost savings that can be realized through consolidation …. The literature reveals that this is a contentious issue and that differences in outcomes are dependent upon on how administrators and politicians calculate the costs and savings. The alleged savings that can be realized at this point appear to have more to do with rhetoric and ideology than it has to do with the empirical realities of what we currently know.” (

If school consolidations do not save money or provide better learning outcomes for students, why are they unfolding with such disastrous regularity?   Why are we wasting tax dollars on solutions that we know will not work? Are there any policy alternatives to school consolidation? School boards everywhere maintain that the easiest solution is to close small schools with declining enrollment. While closing schools is indeed the easiest solution, it is not necessarily the best solution. A better solution, albeit a solution requiring more work by school boards, would be to seek partnerships with other education institutions, social service agencies and appropriate community groups to share the use and costs of school facilities.  Keep small neighbourhood schools open by sharing building space with others.  Make more effective use of technology to provide enriched curriculum in smaller schools.

South Monaghan P.S. has a capacity of 210.  With a current enrollment of 100, there would be lots of room to share with a community library, seniors recreation program or other community group.  The school board would earn much-needed rent revenue, the local community would keep its school and young students would not have to spend hours riding buses every week. The board has reviewed one of these research reports and concluded that "Teachers, not school size, make the difference in optimal student success.  There is no single outcome to indicate what makes a school better or best when it comes to size." 

According to Dr. Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, "Smaller schools are generally better for most purposes.  The weight of evidence provided by this review favours smaller schools for a wide array of student outcomes and most organizational outcomes as well." (

Are government and school board leaders aware of these research findings concerning negative cost savings plus inferior academic and behavioural outcomes for large, consolidated schools?  Why do school board administrators choose to ignore these research findings?  Is the Minister of Education aware of these research findings? Or do these findings clash with an outdated ideology?  For more information, please visit 

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