Will School Consolidation Help Puerto Rico?

istock-blackboardPuerto Rico’s Department of Education has announced a plan to close 100 schools. The numbers of people leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and the aging population have reduced the numbers of school children significantly,  and a strong preference for private schools has added to the drop in public school enrollment.

Consolidation of schools is expected to save $27 million and thus help for the struggling economy, and the Education Secretary has stressed that there will be no job losses associated with the school closings. The Department of Education also predicts that education overall will be improved, one of the goals Governor Garcia-Padilla lists in his plans for economic recovery for Puerto Rico.

Will school consolidation lead to these benefits? Research on school consolidation on the mainland suggests that cost savings can occur, but they are not always an automatic consequence of school consolidation and that there can be unintended consequences. One  study in New York State found that consolidation makes fiscal sense, particularly for very small districts, but states should avoid subsidizing unwarranted capital projects.  Another review of research in the same state found that additional costs associated with the transition affected some districts for a decade after the consolidation, at which point operating costs fell to pre-consolidation levels.The National Education Policy Center undertook extensive research and found that impoverished areas in particular are likely to suffer negative consequences in the economic health of the community as a whole.

One literature review summed up their conclusions like this:

School and school district consolidation produces fewer fiscal benefits and more fiscal costs   than is popularly believed. Administrative cost savings are most likely, but these savings may often be largely offset by other cost increases, especially for transportation. Consolidating schools can also adversely affect the local economy, reducing the fiscal capacity of the school district. These costs are disproportionately imposed on poor and minority communities.

One 21st century example of school consolidation is provided by the state of Arkansas, which closed 57 schools in 2007, when the state was required to close all schools having fewer than 350 students. This followed several waves of school closings and consolidation in the 20th century. Arkansas and Puerto Rico have a number of things in common. Arkansas is historically a poor state with a wide income gap. Agriculture has been the major industry in the past, but industrialization diversified the economy during the 20th century. Transportation can be challenging in rural Arkansas, where many roads are still unpaved, and, like Puerto Rico, Arkansas still has areas where reliable electricity and internet service are lacking.

Arkansas’s school consolidation was not the result of dwindling numbers of schoolchildren, but they still saw a number of unintended consequences from the school closings:

  • Additional costs related to transportation dwarfed the savings for many districts.
  • Bus time for children increased, though not as much as parents had feared.
  • Schools had to buy new textbooks and align curricula, since schools were not all using the same books. Some schools couldn’t buy new textbooks, keeping costs down but affecting the educational experience.
  • The schools which made the change most smoothly invested in changes to sports teams, mascots, etc. — an additional cost.
  • Small communities which lost their schools also lost their community centers. In some cases, the school buildings were maintained as community centers in order to mitigate this — again, an additional cost.
  • Significantly fewer citizens served on schools boards after consolidation and there was less local control of schools overall.
  • A study in 2013 found a negative impact on student performance for students from the closed schools, though not for the students in the receiving schools.

Recent research by the University of Arkansas into the human rather than the purely economic effects of school consolidation found that by now, seven years after the school closings, most schools have settled in, with effects being remembered more by parents and teachers than by students. However the interviewers report that those schools which had more problems were less willing to talk with researchers, which makes their overall cheery conclusions less convincing.

Will Puerto Rico save money by closing schools? Possibly. Yet lessons from New York, Arkansas and elsewhere also indicate that Puerto Rico should proceed with caution.

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