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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 27, 2017 1:00 am


District size shouldn't limit school choice

Small districts

Multiple public school districts in northeast Indiana had fewer than 2,000 students in 2016-17:

North Adams 1,809

Garrett-Keyser-Butler 1,777

Bluffton-Harrison 1,573

Whitko 1,455

DeKalb County Eastern 1,318

South Adams 1,298

Adams Central 1,259

Central Noble 1,220

Southern Wells 839

Hamilton Community 328


About 17,000 northeast Indiana students returned to schools this fall in districts with fewer than 2,000 students. According to a Ball State University study commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, those students are less likely to enroll in college, less likely to take Advanced Placement exams and more likely to score below students in larger districts on standardized tests. The study urges continued focus on “both cost savings and performance-related findings” to encourage school district consolidation.

No surprise here. The Indiana Chamber has long graded school districts on fiscal efficiency, drawing correlations between achievement and spending without acknowledging the demographic makeup of those districts.

But the study is disingenuous in light of the Chamber's unwavering support for vouchers. How is it that Lakeland School Corp., with 1,985 students, warrants scrutiny, but Lakeland Christian Academy, with 149 students, does not? 

Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber, said it's apples to oranges; the study focused on districts, not individual schools.

“Our support for school choice remains strong and enthusiastic,” he said in an email. “It gives parents the flexibility to make sure their children have the best education they can, which gives those students a better chance for success in school and throughout their life.”

So school choice shouldn't extend to parents who choose small public corporations? To districts that can offer greater personal attention; a strong sense of community and identity?

“We're the center point around which everything revolves,” said Dr. Nicole L. Singer, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools. “Everywhere I go, I have groups asking what they can do for the schools.”

She challenges the study's assertion that students will be better served by consolidation, using the districts she works closely with as an example.

“I would sure hate to try and meld the wants, needs and desires of those individual communities underneath one administrative umbrella because they are vastly different,” Singer said. “Our parents want better opportunities for their kids than what they had – that may or may not be college for some of our kids. But if you drive 15 miles down the road, that's very much a college-driven push. So how are you going to meet the needs of those two groups of kids and people if you've combined all these administrative functions?”

Consolidation diminishes the influence of smaller communities, she said, noting that a continuing push for savings inevitably results in school closings and program cuts.

“What piece of the pie am I going to get? How big is my voice? How important are our children in this bigger picture?” Singer asked.

Choice should extend to residents of the small Indiana towns and rural communities supporting and nurturing public school districts. The Chamber and lawmakers willing to pay for a parallel system of schools through the charter and voucher programs should be consistent. If they accept the Ball State study's assertion that achievement is lagging, they should step up to support increased funding for small districts, as well.