Support Small Schools?

Another New Mexico-based think tank — usually considered to be moderate or slightly left-of-center — called Think New Mexico recently released a study calling for smaller schools. While the Rio Grande Foundation has focused on tax credits for education and, more broadly speaking “choice” and market-based reforms as the best means of improving educational results, we fully support Think New Mexico’s call for smaller schools.
According to research from Think New Mexico:

New Mexico’s graduation rate ranks second from the bottom of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only 54.1% of New Mexico’s children graduate from high school, compared with a national average of 70.6%. An average of 77 students drop out each school day across New Mexico – nearly 14,000 per year.
Decades of research have shown that smaller schools have higher graduation rates, higher student achievement, lower levels of student alienation and violence, and higher levels of satisfaction among students, parents, principals, and teachers. Small schools also dramatically improve the performance of low-income children, which helps to narrow the persistent achievement gap.
The most effective high school size, according to the research, is 600-900 students. Yet, in 2007, more than two-thirds of New Mexico ninth graders entered high schools with populations larger than 1,000 students, and nearly a third entered high schools with more than 2,000 students.
Small schools are not only better for students, they also cost less to build and operate. Researchers have found that the most efficient schools are those serving 300-900 students. Schools larger than this experience “diseconomies of scale”: inefficiencies and increased costs that result from increases in bureaucracy, security, and transportation. In addition, if the operational cost of a school is calculated “per graduate” rather than “per student,” small schools are substantially more efficient than large schools because their dropout rates are much lower.
The capital costs of small schools can also be far less per student than those of large schools if the small schools are designed to take advantage of community educational resources like gymnasiums, pools, libraries, and sports fields, rather than duplicating these facilities. Several New Mexico charter schools have successfully applied this community-based model, at a savings of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Think New Mexico recommends that the legislature and Governor Richardson enact legislation requiring that: 1) any school receiving state capital outlay funding for construction must have a capacity of no more than 225 students per high school grade level, 120 students per middle school grade level, or 60 students per elementary school grade level; and 2) schools receiving additional state funds to serve at-risk students must establish smaller learning communities if they exceed these size limits and if they have not already done so.

While not explicitly “market” or “choice”-based, the call for smaller schools will certainly make New Mexico schools more manageable. Broad-based choice should still be the ultimate goal of education reform (and it will continue to be the centerpiece of our reform efforts), but forcing schools to downsize should result in improved results.