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Iowa School District Consolidation

May 12, 2010
Timothy Gilson, Sunday,
Des Moines Register
April 5, 2009

Timothy Gilson, assistant professor, UNI Department of Education Leadership, Counseling & Postsecondary Education

In a time of increasing media and political attention on school district consolidation in Iowa, decision makers must remember that monumental to this discussion should be the impact on families, education, and the overall preparation of our youth. While concerns about school funding may initially drive Iowa school districts to consider school consolidation, ultimately the decision to enter into partnership with a neighboring district depends on whether consolidation will positively impact student learning. Loss of students in Iowa school districts translates into lost dollars. For a growing number of Iowa districts, the lost funding raises questions of survival and more important the ability to ensure quality learning opportunities for students.

In a Waterloo Courier article dated March 3, 2009, Judy Jeffrey, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, was recently quoted as stating, “There is no magic size for schools. It really comes down to the opportunities we provide to our students. It is an ethical dilemma for districts, and that ethical dilemma is often emotionally charged.”

A substantial review of literature exists discussing the impact of school district consolidation, both in Iowa and throughout the nation. The research shows that reorganization of any type was thought to have a positive effect on the quality of schools, course offerings and technology.

Dave Else, Tim Gilson, and Nick Pace, faculty in the Department of Educational Leadership, Counseling & Postsecondary Education at the University of Northern Iowa, Shannon Horn, research assistant, and the Institute for Educational Leadership at UNI, recently conducted a study to examine the impact of school consolidation on students, parents, and the quality of education in the consolidated districts. School consolidation is about many issues, but in the end, none are more important than providing the best educational system that a district can provide.

The debate about consolidation and the impact on student achievement will likely be an on-going discussion; however, the focus of our study is on the parent and student perceptions of these efforts.

Since July of 2001, there have been nine school district mergers in Iowa. This research study looked at eight of those districts - all that had consolidated prior to 2006. Surveys were randomly distributed to parents and students from each district. In our study, 20 percent of the student respondents indicated that their grades had improved since their districts had combined. Another 14 percent stated that their test scores had improved, and 6 percent thought they were more likely to attend postsecondary school.

Research points to the fact that as the size of a school district increases, the student participation in extra-curricular activities decreases. This fact, coupled with the plethora of research connecting positive academic growth with involvement in activities, is a valid concern for both parents and students. This study indicated that in Iowa's consolidated districts more than 62 percent of the student respondents identified that increased competition in their newly consolidated districts had helped them develop and grow. This growth is further identified as another 67 percent of those respondents indicated that the consolidation had motivated them to be a better student. Eighty-one percent of these same students identified that there was an increase in academic competition in their newly formed districts.

While parents often have more concerns about school consolidation than their children, our recent study indicated that more than 69 percent of parents believed that the exposure to more teachers had helped their child grow as a student. Sixty three percent of the parents surveyed also believed that the increased competition in extra-curricular activities had helped their child develop and grow.

A key factor in any school consolidation is the overall perceptions from parents and students. In this recent study, 77% of the students indicated that if given the choice, they would remain in their consolidated district. Almost 70% of the parents indicated that if given the choice, they would also prefer their child to remain in the newly formed district. Thus, while initial concerns and apprehensions are difficult to overcome, the vast majority of our respondents indicated positive support for their new district.

School district consolidation is never an easy issue to work through. However, as Iowa districts struggle to make those tough decisions, what is best for children should always be the determining factor. Politicians, administrators, and concerned individuals must look at true data and come to their own conclusions regarding what is best for their district.