Albright: Small School Challenge

Apr 23, 2018

In his 1939 essay, Education, the late E.B. White commended the teacher in a two-room seacoast Maine schoolhouse where his son spent happy days.

White wrote “She not only undertakes to instruct her charges in all the subjects of the first three grades, but she manages to function quietly and effectively as a guardian of their health, their clothes, their habits, their mothers, and their snowball engagements.”

I always picture that scene when legislators consider reducing financial support for our smallest schools.

Since 1998, the state has handed out support grants using a straightforward formula based on enrollment. But change is coming in July 2019. Small schools will need to compete for those grants and the awards will be based on criteria that are proving hard to nail down: how isolated the school is, as defined by lengthy driving times or inhospitable routes that families or school busses need to navigate, or academic excellence, or the operational efficiency of the school.

All that may sound reasonable on paper, but I’m afraid that, in practice, the new rules will pit already beleaguered small schools against each other, and give also beleaguered taxpayers an excuse to close them.

Some of this debate has been fueled by two conflicting reports. The first, by researchers at Penn State University, warns that “to eliminate or reduce grants to small schools fails to account for the critical role they play in sustaining local communities.” The second, by a researcher from Rutgers University and another from Vermont’s own Agency of Education, says just the opposite: that “many schools and districts in Vermont are not merely small by national and international standards, but tiny and possibly unsustainably so.”

As a former education reporter, I’ve seen small schools offer something that’s hard to define, and even harder to assess using test scores. The best offer a sense of home, a close-knit community of learners, diverse friends, and teachers like the one E.B. White admired, who know children almost as well as their parents do, and help each one to thrive.

All over Vermont, many tiny schoolhouses are now vacant and deteriorating. I’d like to see us save the few endangered ones left at the hearts of their communities, just as we preserve threatened wildlife species. Seems like a relatively small price to pay for a healthy and diverse education ecosystem.