West Virginia had thousands of schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and hundreds of self-taxing school districts. As late as the 1907–08 school year, according to one report, the state had 6,156 schools in 395 districts. There were 40 high schools and 262 multi-roomed ‘‘graded’’ schools that year, but the overwhelming majority, 5,854, were tiny, one-room schools. The consolidation of these many schools and districts into a much smaller number of larger units is a century-old process that remains a touchy issue today.
As early as the late 19th century, small, community-run schools were being castigated as unsystematic, inefficient, and backward. They all but disappeared in the metropolitan areas during this era, but rural communities retained their schools. Country schools were almost always buildings of one room, occasionally two, educating the children of local families. Kinship and political connections were often more important than education or experience in getting a teaching job.
Rural schools suffered from seasonal attendance and lack of resources. Nonetheless, the one-room school and later the rural high school were centers of communication, socializing, and athletic participation, and they served as places to vote. They were the symbols of civilization itself in many communities.
School and school district consolidations accelerated during the Great Depression Depression and after World War II. The county unit plan, an important education reform that went into effect in 1933, combined hundreds of small school districts into 55 county systems. By 1959–60, the number of schools in West Virginia had been cut to 2,843, less than half the number reported a half-century before. Meanwhile, the student population had nearly doubled, from 235,191 to 460,429, but this growth in the number of students soon reversed itself. The loss of mining and industrial jobs in the 1950s and 1960s reduced the school-age population of many counties, while undercutting school budgets. Efforts were made to consolidate the remaining small schools as their student numbers dwindled. Better highways and a growing fleet of school buses facilitated the closing of schools.
Later consolidation efforts were driven in part by the 1982 Recht Decision, a judicial ruling that called for equity in school funding and equal instruction for all children in West Virginia. This led many counties to close small, often older, schools where instructional costs were high and where it was sometimes hard to maintain standards. The state School Building Authority, established in 1989 at the urging of Governor Gaston Caperton, is recognized as a major force in school consolidation in recent decades. The authority has required consolidation in some cases and has been seen as giving higher priority to the construction and remodeling of schools where consolidation is a consideration.
The result of these changes was that during the 20th century thousands of schools and hundreds of school districts disappeared in West Virginia. The state became the primary governing entity for West Virginia schools, eclipsing communities and counties. By the end of the 20th century, fewer than 900 schools remained. There are occasional suggestions that 55 county school systems are too many, and that they should be further consolidated, also enabling school consolidations between counties.
While pervasive, school consolidation has been controversial. The controversy continued into the early 21st century, and there were indications that the policy was being re-evaluated at the upper levels of government. Proponents point to the modern school buildings created by consolidation throughout the state, noting that these schools are better equipped than their smaller predecessors. They note wider curricular and extra-curricular offerings than at smaller schools, and the presence of more faculty and staff. They also argue that larger schools allow the offering of a better education at a lower average cost per student.
Critics claim that school consolidation erodes rural locales by withdrawing children and fiscal resources from small communities, and makes it difficult for children to participate in school activities. Poor families are further disadvantaged if parents have difficulty coming long distances to meet with teachers or to support school activities. And critics argue that the children most likely to be harmed by district-wide consolidation are poorer, since consolidated schools are often built in or near towns where wealthier students and their families have easier access. They point out that consolidated schools rarely save as much money as expected. Some recent research questions the academic advantage of larger schools, as well.
This Article was written by Alan J. DeYoung
Last Revised on October 29, 2010