Good public schools are essential to the good life. Americans are optimistic, future-looking people, and we focus much of our hopes on our kids and their schooling. Little wonder then that Americans worry so much about how good the schools are, a concern that is doubly true for rural schools.
Despite a widely held norm that good schools are vital for community life, the declining population of many rural towns on the Great Plains has driven school policy. School consolidation has been the principal political response to dwindling school populations.
But is rural school consolidation a good idea? Is it just a cost-saving measure, the unfortunate, sad, but entirely predictable outcome for towns with too few students? Has anyone ever really calculated whether the savings are worth it?
Are there benefits to students — not just taxpayers — from consolidation?
The University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies is holding its 39th annual symposium in Kearney on this controversial topic, looking at both sides of the issue. The Symposium, “Gains and Losses from School Consolidation in the Great Plains,” will be on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus and Younes Conference Center, April 5 and 6. You are invited.
Participants will have the opportunity to discuss many topics about rural schools. The keynote will be delivered by noted education scholar Dr. Paul Theobald, author of numerous books and articles on the historical importance of rural schools.
Another featured speaker, Marty Strange, wrote: “Declining population in many rural areas is further diminishing rural political influence in some of the most characteristically rural regions — Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and especially the Great Plains. With reapportionment thinning the rural representation in most states, the rural minority will be politically ever more marginalized.”
The time is now to pay careful attention to the losses and gains from school consolidation.
The Symposium will feature key policymakers, including Gov. Dave Heineman, Unicameral Speaker Greg Adams, NU President James B. Milliken, Education Commissioner Dr. Roger Breed, and others. Additionally, academics from across the Great Plains will present the latest research.
Dr. Chuck Guildner, noted photographer, will present an exhibition of his photographs of one-room schoolhouses at MONA. The Hutchins Consort will perform the evening of April 5 as part of their commitment to rural America.
Education has been a relevant concern to those seeking good governance and ultimately a good life. Indeed, Aristotle suggested that “the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution. ...”
Local schools provide life-sustaining roots for many citizens. For some citizens, the local school imbues that which is good in a community or a place. In rural towns the school is often viewed as the unifying focus of the community.
We all have a stake in sustaining quality education in Nebraska and the Great Plains. The vitality of our democracy is intimately linked to our schools. Rural towns must be prepared to deal with the gains and losses from school consolidation, and being prepared means being informed.
It is our hope that the symposium will provide a meaningful framework for our educational future. Please plan to attend and participate in the symposium, “Gains and Losses: from School Consolidation in the Great Plains.” To register, go to http://www.unl.edu/plains/.
Richard Edwards is a professor of economics and directs the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Great Plains Studies. Peter J. Longo is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.