The answer to educational shortages – collaboration between small districts
In 1930, there existed 130,000 school districts in the United States with an average district enrollment of 150 students each. In 2019, there were approximately 16,800 school districts in the United States serving 50.8 million K-12 students, averaging 3,023 students enrolled per district.
Several years ago, a teacher shortage began, COVID-19 has encouraged many teachers to retire and discouraged young people from joining the profession, worsening the situation. This fall each K-12 district felt the pains of the shortage as they tried to staff their classrooms with talented educators. So how do small rural schools solve this challenge?
Since 1938, over 100,000 school districts have been eliminated in the U.S. In Michigan, the largest number of consolidations occurred in the 20 years following World War II, a time of prosperity, increasing urbanization, and growing student enrollment. Districts decreased from 7,300 districts to 4,900 districts. A second round of consolidations occurred in the 1970s, a period of high inflation, declining K-12 student enrollment, and increases in population for suburban areas. Many communities turned to district consolidation to answer the challenges.
Districts considered consolidation with other districts to help lower expenses and gain educational resources, most notably teachers. Schools were able to share teachers, service more students, and take advantage of realized economies of scale. The challenge to consolidation in rural Michigan is that small school districts are the center of activity and identity for many of these small communities.
In 2017, the state of Michigan budgeted several million dollars under section 22g in their budget. Its purpose was to provide public school districts and ISDs that wanted to merge, funds to help this occur. Several mergers occurred as a result, the most significant was Marshall Public Schools annexation of Albion Public Schools, receiving $2.5 million to help with expenses related to consolidation.
So what is the answer for small districts that continue to struggle with enrollment, teacher shortages, rising expenses tied to economies of scale, and decreasing variety of course offerings in rural settings? District options include: coordination of administrative services amongst districts such as superintendents, and sharing of teachers/after school programs/equipment. Added opportunities include sports co-op arrangements, collaborative food service, and even collaborative summer programming.
What if three or four small local districts consolidated? They continued to use their current buildings, instead of building a new consolidated district campus, saving local tax payer dollars. What if each district became a magnet district? Each one specializes in several areas such as healthcare/biology, manufacturing, traditional trades, robotics, coding/cyber security, college prep, business/accounting/marketing, graphic design, engineering/aerospace, audio production/theatre design, humanities/journalism, and sociology/psychology. What if each school district houses the co-op for one or two sports with the other districts? What if the state of Michigan provided financial assistance for this to occur as they did in 2017? What if they partnered with the three higher education institutions and others beyond to support these efforts both in-person and virtually. Students would enjoy choice, begin exploring careers in middle school while learning “where they fit” before entering college or career pathways after high school graduation.
Rural districts will need to get creative to continue to effectively and efficiently serve our students and communities. Community members, district school boards, and district leadership need to begin exploring what is possible to better serve our students in this time of increasing scarcity in education. Who is willing to begin shaping this vision, moving from “What if” to “What we will build?”
Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.