In 1930, the US had 262,000 public schools for 28 million students.
Guess what those numbers were in 2002?
In 2002, the US had 91,000 schools for 54 million students. That’s a drop of 170,000 schools while the student population nearly doubled. The average public school has gone from serving 100 students at a time to almost 600 students. This doesn’t seem like a positive trend to me.
Here’s the EPA presentation where I found these facts. Turns out big schools have some environmental and social costs to go along with their scale. Especially mega schools out on the edges of communities. With minimum acreage driving site selection, neighborhood and downtown schools are becoming things of the past. (I think high schools in NC require 30 acres nowadays, but haven’t been able to confirm.) These ‘edge schools’ generate more and longer vehicle trips than in-fill schools – burning more fuel, creating more emissions, and destroying productivity all the while.
So what’s the appeal of a big, edge school? Is it about economies of scale? Does it justify bureaucracy? Does it enable better facilities and better equipment? Or maybe it's just an obsession with certain kinds of organized sports that require big fields? Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever rationale, it seems hard to argue against the case for having smaller schools too.
For conservatives, vouchers appear to be a kind of holy grail for all things educational. And while vouchers may have a role in a comprehensive strategy for making progress in public education, the discussion cannot start there. It has to start from the progressive position of common good.
My fear, though, is that average Americans see progressives as advocating some version of status quo, while wingers have stood for something different, something called privatization (surprise, surprise). We on the left have not articulated a coherent path for improvement, and maybe we haven't even acknowledged the scope of the need.
These are gross generalities I know, and many of my friends in public education are as frustrated by the Current View of the Situation as I am. But a Better View of the Situation has not been fully framed . . . and a path for getting there has not been mapped.
Maybe we should start with a commitment to smaller schools.
Disclaimer: I have no credentials in this area beyond being a parent.