Declining enrollment and fiscal constraints often lead to school district consolidations and closed schools; however, this is not the right solution for all school districts.

Sherrilyn Billger (Economics) and Joseph Pacha (Educational Administration and Foundations) complete a study funded by a grant from the USDA National Research Initiative.

The solution for a local troubled  school district is more complicated than shuttering its doors. This was one of  the conclusions in a study conducted by Educational Administration and  Foundations Associate Professor and Assistant Chair Joseph Pacha and Economics Associate Professor Sherrilyn Billger.

The two recently completed a school closure study for the Atwood-Hammond school district at the behest of its superintendent. Atwood-Hammond is a small district with one elementary school and one high school located nearly 30 miles east of Decatur. Declining enrollment and financial difficulties contribute to a particularly challenging climate for the district.

“Though declining enrollment and fiscal constraints often lead to district consolidations and closed schools, this is not the right solution for Atwood-Hammond,” said Billger. “Similar districts have consolidated, as Governor Quinn recommends, but now face continually rising expenditures and weak student test scores. Another solution must be developed and implemented.”

In terms of expenditures and enrollment, Atwood-Hammond appears much like nearby districts that opted to close their high schools. The recently closed high schools from similar districts include Chenoa, Malta, Gridley, Rossville-Alvin and Venice. Using data from 1986 to the present, Pacha and Billger compared Atwood-Hammond to the nearby districts including Arthur, Bement, Lovington and Tuscola.  Among the districts in that area, Atwood-Hammond receives low levels of tax revenue, placing a strain on the district’s ability to fund programs for students.  Per-pupil spending is lower than all surrounding districts, and is largely due to low instructional spending and low teacher salaries.

Student achievement also seems to be suffering at the high school level. While elementary math and reading test scores remain strong, high school scores are particularly weak and have worsened over time. Pacha and Billger observed that while the elementary students (K-8) are doing well on test scores and demonstrate good learning as measured by the tests at those levels, they do not continue to achieve high scores at the high school level. For example in 1995, 20 percent of third-graders exceeded standards and 10 percent did not meet goals.  In 2003, none of these 11th graders exceeded goals and 40 percent did not meet them.

Pacha and Billger also examined school districts that absorbed students from the closed high schools mentioned above.  The receiving districts include: Bismarck (Rossville), DeKalb (Malta), El-Paso (Gridley), Hoopeston (Rossville) and Prairie Central (Chenoa).  Following the absorption of students from a closed high school, some troubling effects occurred.  While enrollments increased somewhat, expenditures per pupil were flat, revealing that total dollar expenditures continued to grow.  There is no evidence of reduced costs or economies of size in any of these cases.  Student test scores are also significantly worse following the absorption of these students.

This study is the most recent work in a long-term project initially funded by a $500,000 grant from the USDA National Research Initiative, which was awarded for 2006-2009.  Pacha and Billger collaborated with Stevenson Center Director Frank Beck and Center for the Study of Education Policy Director Norman Durflinger for that grant project.  Initial findings on the determinants of school closures throughout Illinois appear in a series of articles recently published in the Illinois School Board Journal.