Small schools, districts squeezed; Population shifts demand vision

The value of Kentucky's small schools and independent districts can never be measured in just dollars and cents.

In Eastern Kentucky, the best independent districts were lighthouses in a dark sea of low expectations and educational neglect, a place where generations of mountain youngsters successfully prepared to compete with youngsters anywhere.

But, as staff writers Jim Warren and Bill Estep recently reported, independent districts are in a squeeze that threatens their survival and that is only going to tighten with the loss of federal funding to the sequester.

Poor districts will feel that loss of federal support the most; it comes on top of years of stagnant and declining state funding, along with sharp drops in rural population and numbers of school-age children.

County districts are responding to the financial pressures by shutting off the flow of students, and the corresponding state funding, from their districts into the independents.

Even in growing areas, such as Clark County, the state is pushing to consolidate small schools, including highly successful ones such as Trapp Elementary, to achieve efficiencies of scale.

None of this is new. Consolidation was the education trend of the 20th century.

But as we get smarter about school effectiveness, Kentucky can't afford to lose what successful small schools and districts have to offer and teach.

This is where visionary leadership could come in handy. The challenges of delivering a competitive education in areas of declining population demand new and innovative approaches. Circuit-riding math and science teachers, more distance learning and online teaching, less obsessing over lines on local maps and more attention to how to leapfrog traditional boundaries to deliver the best education possible are some of the ideas Kentucky should explore.

Also, the state must revive its education watchdog to combat malfeasance.

Who can blame the supporters of the Jackson school district for pulling out all the stops, including raising $265,000 in four months, to remain independent? The alternative would be to merge with Breathitt County, which the state allowed to fall into the educational equivalent of a death spiral, finally intervening only when the superintendent was on his way to federal prison for corruption.

The legislature defanged the Office of Education Accountability years ago after it barked in the wrong sandboxes, and students and taxpayers have been the losers.

Some would argue that independent districts succeed by cherry-picking the best students, the offspring of local professionals and families who care enough about education and have the resources to transport their kids, sometimes long distances, to the "city schools."

There's truth in that argument but also a challenge: How do we infuse into the larger districts the high expectations and support for education embodied in high-achieving small schools and independent districts? That's value Kentucky can't afford to sacrifice.