Small schools make rural communities more prosperous

March 16, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The old news is that students in small schools do better and have brighter outcomes than students in larger schools. The latest news, however, is that when small schools close in rural communities to consolidate with large schools, the local community is a big loser.

A Cornell University study shows that on almost every indicator of economic and social well-being, rural communities with their own schools fare significantly better than rural communities that no longer have schools.

The study finds that small rural communities with a school have significantly higher housing values, more new housing, smaller income variability, fewer households receiving public assistance, lower poverty and child poverty rates, more workers in professional and managerial jobs, and more workers employed within the community. These areas also are more likely to have municipal water and sewer systems and more likely to grow in population than communities without schools. In addition, they have proportionately more college graduates than communities without schools.

"When a school goes in a rural community, it's the death knell. This study shows consistently that for the smallest rural communities, the presence of a school is linked to many social and economic benefits," says sociologist Thomas A. Lyson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell, who conducted the study. Its findings were recently summarized in a special report issued by the Southern Rural Development Center in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research and the Rural School and Community Trust. The full study was published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education (17:131-137, 2002).

"The money that might be saved through consolidation could be lost in lost taxes, declining property values and lost businesses," Lyson says. "Even in the smallest rural villages in New York, schools serve as important markers of social and economic variability and vitality, the research indicates."

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