Agency of Education criticizes consolidation study

BARRE — The Agency of Education is criticizing a recent study that suggests the consolidation of schools and districts will not save money or provide better outcomes for students.

Last week, Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford, researchers at Penn State University, released a study titled “Vermont Educational Reform: A Balanced Approach to Equity and Funding.” Burfoot-Rochford is a Vermont native and a former elementary school teacher in Cabot, while Hall hails from Maine, which in recent years has undergone statewide school district consolidation.

The study asserts that, “Drawing from over a century of research on the outcomes of district and school consolidation, we found no evidence that consolidation will produce beneficial or educational outcomes for Vermont.”

Wednesday, the Agency of Education offered a rebuttal — authored by Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and Wendy Geller, data administration director for the agency — that questions the authors’ interpretation of the data they used for their study.

“We feel compelled to respond, because with respect to school and district size, this report seriously misrepresents much of the peer-reviewed research on which it claims to be based,” states the rebuttal from the Agency of Education. “Because it overgeneralizes and oversimplifies, we are concerned this report does a disservice to the powerful conversations some of our school boards and communities are having about how they can ensure stability for their schools and children – both the ones they serve today and the ones they are likely to serve in the future.”

Holcombe and Geller note that the research cited in the study actually supports the notion that consolidation will save money and result in better educational outcomes.

For example, a 2002 study from Syracuse University professors William Duncombe and John Yinger cited in the Hall and Burfoot-Rochford study claims that “sizable cost savings may exist by moving from a very small district … to a district with 2,000 to 4,000 pupils, both in instructional and educational costs.”

Another study cited in their study notes a positive relationship between the size of a high school’s graduating class and the variety of courses offered by the school.

Holcombe and Geller also take issue with the notion of what it means to be a “small school” in the first place, and the discrepancy between the way it’s defined in the research cited by the study and the way it’s defined in the state.

In the study, the definition “small school” varies from researcher to researcher. Some define a small school as having 250 to 690 students, where others define a small elementary school as having fewer than 350 students and a small high school as having fewer than 900 students.

However, according to Holcombe and Geller, those definitions don’t reflect small schools in the state, which are defined by statute as having 100 pupils or fewer. In Vermont, 61 percent of elementary schools have enrollments of fewer than 200 students, and 34 percent have enrollments below 100.

At the high school level, nearly high school in state would fall into the category of “small school” as defined by the researchers cited in the study.

That smaller sense of scale in Vermont also applies to school districts.

“The smallest districts discussed in the literature were districts of 275 students or less. We have districts in Vermont of 15 students that need to meet all the same federal and state obligations as our largest districts,” states the rebuttal from the Agency of Education. “Almost 70 percent of our school districts have an average daily membership of 300 or less.”

The Agency of Education also questions a suggestion in the study to both increase the amount of money awarded in small-schools grants, and to make the grant application process competitive.

“Moreover, we note that a strategy that competitively awards small-schools grants to those communities that can demonstrate strong school-business partnerships, as described in the report, is a strategy that rewards more affluent towns and towns with more human resources at the expense of the less affluent and more isolated rural towns that need support the most,” states the rebuttal from the Agency of education.

Holcombe and Geller conclude by saying, “Over the last year, we have worked hard to support this conversation and to encourage our local partners to think broadly about how to achieve their goals locally, given the specifics of their situation, and on the basis of solid, rigorous empirical analysis. This (study) does not contribute to these discussions in an accurate or empirically sound way.”

When reached for comment Wednesday, study authors Burfoot-Rochford and Hall seemed to take the criticism in stride.

Hall noted that the twin issues of education costs and education quality are points of concern for many, and solutions to those problems are typically fraught with controversy.

“What’s happening in Vermont is very typical of the discussion that is happening around the country,” Hall said.

Burfoot-Rochford said he and Hall had not yet had the chance to get into the “nitty gritty” of the Agency of Education’s rebuttal to their study, but did say, “We appreciate the rebuttal that was posted. Our goal as researchers is to add to the discussion.”

Burfoot-Rochford and Hall are scheduled to testify today before the House and Senate education committees.

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