SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION BRANDED FAILURE - Study Says No Money Saved, Test Scores Stagnant

While West Virginia's school consolidation did build new facilities in the 1990s, it didn't save money or improve student achievement, according to a study that will be released this week by Challenge WV.

The report says even though more than 200 schools were closed and student enrollment dropped by 34,000 students, West Virginia increased education spending more than any state in the nation during the past decade.

School consolidation has primarily been driven by former State Senator Lloyd Jackson, now a member of the state board and a candidate for governor.

"The state's primary education policy has been a failure, in terms of student achievement and securing financial savings," said Cynthia Reeves, PHD, a North Carolina consultant who wrote the report after analyzing West Virginia school finance data and student test scores.

Challenge West Virginia presented the study to legislators this week. The group is supporting bills introduced by Gov. Bob Wise that would shorten bus times and promote small schools.

In her report, Reeves cites a 2001 national study on student achievement that looked at fourth- and eighth-grade student scores on a national exam and ACT college entrance exam marks.

Seventy-six more central-office administrators worked in the state in 2000 than in 1990, the study found. "It is students and education that is getting walked on," said Linda Martin, Coordinator of Challenge WV.

State schools Deputy Superintendent Steve Paine noted that West Virginia still has many small schools, despite consolidation.

Reeves' 30-page report titled "A Decade of Consolidation: Where Are the Savings?" notes that West Virginia teachers received only a 5 percent raise, when adjusted for inflation during the 1990s.

Reeves suggests that West Virginia could have improved education by giving teachers raises, since many studies have linked student achievement to quality teaching.

West Virginia teacher salaries rank 41st in the nation.

"It's teachers who make for a quality education," Martin said. "We don't mind increasing spending on education. But it's how you spend the money."

School transportation costs soared during the 1990s, even though fewer students rode on buses, the study notes.

Surprisingly, building operation and maintenance costs also rose, despite closing schools.

School officials had promised that consolidating schools would lower maintenance and utility costs.

Reeves said the state could save money by providing incentives for counties to reduce transportation costs. Reeves said the counties should require bus drivers to work an 8-hour day if they receive full-time wages.

The state should consider setting up more "distance-learning" programs, which are cheaper than building new schools, Reeves said, a proposal long suggested by Challenge WV.

Martin said Reeves plans to testify in a lawsuit challenging a high school consolidation in Lincoln County, where many students will be required to ride the bus for more than one and one-half hour.