Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Granger Elementary School teacher Julie Folsom works with students in West Valley City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.

A recent trip across the countryside caused me to notice something I hadn’t paid much attention to before: small, empty neighborhood schools.

An old-timer I was with said when he traveled through the area for work 50 years ago, those schools were functioning, and little kids would be out playing in the schoolyard when he’d drive by. Most of those schools, however, now sit vacant.

Small American towns with small schools and small children playing in the schoolyards — the sort of darling image that’s reminiscent of the simpler, happier times portrayed in Norman Rockwell pictures — no longer seem to be a part of the modern educational landscape. When I drive by huge, modern school buildings and see kids being bused in from the hinterlands to spend all day in soulless structures far from home, my heart breaks.

Consolidating schools in tiny towns where enrollment has dropped to completely unsustainable levels may make sense, but in general, small school environments are better for students, and the reasons big-government advocates support creating massive schooling conglomerates are the same reasons why big-government types do anything: to get more power and money. If voters realized, though, the parallel benefits inherent in both small government and small schools, our society would be much better off.

“School district consolidation is a striking phenomenon,” reports the School Superintendents Association website. “According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 117,108 school districts provided elementary and secondary education in 1939–40. By 2006–07, the number of districts had dropped to 13,862, a decline of 88 percent.”

Has the number of school districts in the United States dropped by 88 percent because it is in the best interests of students or because our demographics have shifted by the same degree? No.

“Most state governments have policies that influence school district consolidation,” the SSA website continues. “The most common form of policy is a state aid program designed to encourage district reorganization, typically in the form of consolidation, by providing additional money for operations or capital projects during the transition to the new form of organization.”

Ah-ha! It’s all about the money. And when you look at the numbers, it’s no wonder districts are incentivized to consolidate! According to SSA, New York districts “may receive an increase in their basic operating aid of up to 40 percent for five years, with declining increases for an additional nine years,” and in addition “to this aid, consolidating districts also may receive a 30 percent increase in building aid for projects initiated within 10 years of consolidation.”

The main argument in favor of consolidating schools is that it will result in long-term cost savings. But after dropping the number of school districts by 88 percent, we’ve realized, as SSA notes, “The net impact of consolidation on education costs per pupil is not clear a priori.”

Education administrators failed to look before they leaped at the big, fat government check used to bait them into consolidating their small schools, and the result of the “bigger is better” school mentality reflects the same disasters resulting from a big, bloated government.

Just as throwing more money at a government agency does not improve it, increasing funding has not been shown to improve the academic performance of students.

Small schools also mirror the nature of small government in that they tend to be simpler and more easily held accountable. I’ve written before about the comfort humans instinctively find in things that are predictable and easy to understand, and it’s no different with government, schools, adults or small children.

It’s human nature to desire and seek an environment where we know what to expect. The bigger and more complex a school or government becomes, the more anxiety it produces. There’s a reason colleges brag about their small class sizes and professor-to-student ratios and why doctor’s offices hype their efficient and personalized care.

In fact, smaller schools tend to produce better students. “Students who were in a small class in grades 4 to 6 had better school achievement and higher wages as adults than those who were in large classes,” the Swedish Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy reported in 2012. Other research “credits small schools with reducing the negative effects of poverty on student achievement, reducing student violence, increasing parent involvement, and making students feel accountable for their behavior and grades,” Education World reported in 2000.

Small schools, like small, local government, are better able to unite a community and meet its needs than a giant, sterile, out-of-touch machine. In addition to not actually saving taxpayers money, bigger schools reduce the influence families have on the education process, and though that may be good for big government, it’s not good for little children.

Teresa Mull (tmull@heartland.org) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.