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Release: Jan. 6, 2000

Technology may be factor in future rural school consolidation debates

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The future of the rural school consolidation debate will likely be shaped by technological advancements and the Internet, according to David R. Reynolds, University of Iowa geography professor. Reynolds also says the topic, once the centerpiece of rural educational reform, has received scant scholarly attention.

In "There Goes the Neighborhood," (University of Iowa Press) Reynolds provides a historical look backward at the events and people who fashioned Iowa's early 20th century "Country Life" movement that intended to create a more modern future for Midwestern farm families. It is in the book's epilogue, which follows a varied, descriptive accounting of what initially made consolidation successful, its 1920s fall from popularity, and its resurrection just after World War II, that Reynolds suggests "recent technological advancements have largely robbed the grand debate over consolidation of its traditional logic."

"If through the exploitation of telecommunication technology, education no longer requires the direct contact of students, teachers and administrators on the scale required in the past, then the school as a place of specializing in the provision of education needs to be reviewed.

"The relationship between the school and the community it serves needs to be reconsidered," Reynolds says.

The grand debate once put rural and urban areas in competition to provide equal educational opportunities while attempting to maintain rural community norms and values. School consolidation has always involved a spatial logic that assumes the primary determinants of educational quality are necessarily related directly to the size of school districts, Reynolds says.

If student transportation costs were removed or become less related to distance, or thirdly, if the provision of public education was no longer dependent on property taxation, then the traditional logic of consolidation would be irrelevant and the grand debate could finally be relegated to history, Reynolds says.

The number of Iowa school consolidations currently numbers 375. In 1965 there were 458. The consolidation pace also has slowed significantly since 1993 when 21 districts were merged to create new ones, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The next consolidation is scheduled for July 1 when the Greenfield and Bridgewater-Fontanelle districts will be combined, creating the Nodaway Valley School District, says Klark Jessen, media specialist, Iowa Department of Education. Greenfield, which last fall had an enrollment of 590, and Bridgewater-Fontanelle, which had 289 students, will be the first consolidation since July 1998. That year, the Gladbrook and Reinbeck school districts of Grundy County were joined under a hyphenated name.

In the book, Reynolds examines the Ku Klux Klan's involvement in school consolidation (Reynolds discovered the Klan was pro-consolidation), resistance to consolidation in most Iowa localities, and the lasting consequences of school consolidation. Reynolds argues the consolidation movement failed earlier in the 20th century because rural Iowans were unconvinced that the supposed advantages of the consolidated school were worth the loss of rural neighborhoods and the more intimate social relationships practiced within them.

"If the history of rural school consolidation teaches us any lesson, it is that the grand debate over consolidation was based on a false dichotomy between equality and community. They need not be antithetical.

"While innovations like distance learning may well become the principal means of delivering education in the future, other key issues in public education are unlikely to be transcended by advances in technology," Reynolds says.

Questions likely to loom in the near future, Reynolds says, are: Who will control the educational system? Who will have access to it? How much will it cost? and Who will pay for it?

"Now that consolidation is no longer tipped in favor of 'big is necessarily better,'" Reynolds suggests that perhaps more socially constructive reforms in the production and delivery of education can now find a political forum and be taken seriously.

"The rural neighborhood is gone but the issue of the relationship between the school, place-based communities, and social class is as important as ever," he says.

"There Goes the Neighborhood," $39.95 hardcover, is available at bookstores or directly from the UI Press online at www.uiowa.edu/~uipress or by calling 1-800-621-2736 or 319-335-2012.