K-12 Schools & Consolidation
The 1940s saw the beginning of a revolution in local schools in Nebraska and other rural communities. In effect, this period also saw the end of the “settlement era” in education. The battleground was over a process called consolidation.
Throughout the settlement era of the late 1800s, the population of school age children in Nebraska and other western states was increasing rapidly. Farmers and their families moved into Indian country in large numbers. Towns were built to provide services. Schools were vital to the process of building a town. Families chose which town or rural area to move to, in part, based on the existence and quality of the school. Out in the country, farms were relatively small, and so there were a lot of farm families close to each other. The families joined together to form a school district, throw up a one-room schoolhouse and hire a teacher.
In 1920, the number of individual school districts in Nebraska peaked at 7,264 districts. In 1930, the number of school age children in the state reached 423,602.
Each small school district probably had one school building. In 1920, 7,264 school districts in the state boasted 7,655 school buildings. Most students went to country schools from Kindergarten up through the 8th grade. If they wanted to go on to high school, they had to take a test and be certified by the county superintendent of schools so the student could attend high school in town.
But by 1940, this pattern of school organization was about to change.
Schools are supported by taxes. Someone has to pay for the building, its upkeep, the books and the teacher’s salary. In Nebraska and most rural states, wealth was measured by how much property a person owned. So, the schools were supported almost entirely by property taxes, rather than sales or income taxes.
In 1945, Nebraska ranked last of all the states in state support of public schools. Only about one percent of the funding for schools came from the state, as opposed to local property taxes.
A child living in a relatively well-off rural community would have a much better education than someone living in a poor area.
In addition, the Depression of the 1930s excellerated a migration away from the farms. For 15 years beginning in 1930, the number of school kids in the state dropped dramatically. Communities fought to hang on to their school districts. The number of districts hovered at just over 7,200 until the early 1940s. But then, many districts began giving up and merging with neighboring districts. In 1939, the number of districts in Nebraska was at 7,201. Four years later (1943), the number dipped below 7,000 for the first time in decades. That small drop heralded a relentless decline that has continued ever since.
In large part, the consolidation of school districts happened because farms got larger. School populations began to climb back up beginning in 1947 as soldiers returned home, married and created the “Baby Boom” of the late 40s and 50s. But the number of districts in the state continued downward. There were fewer farmers more widely scattered across the land. So, their kids had to travel farther to fewer, larger schools. Also, more people lived in cities, even in rural states like Nebraska.
Consolidation is also a political process and political fight. In 1949, the Nebraska legislature passed the Reorganization of School Districts Act with the expressed intent of reducing the number of school districts in the state. The law set up procedures for districts to merge. One of the goals was to “reduce disparities in per pupil valuation among school districts.”
Many rural residents don’t want to close their rural schools. It’s better and more convenient for the kids to have a school close by. And there are tax advantages when schools are small and inexpensive, even if the school can’t offer as many subjects. So, there have been pitched political battles between proponents and opponents of consolidation.
Kelly Holthus went to a one-room school for his elementary years. Then the schools in the area consolidated. Kelly thinks it became a better district. “The one-room school couldn’t attract teachers. They just couldn’t operate.” But Kelly – who is now president of the Cornerstone Bank in York – recognizes the loyalty that small schools evoke. “I never talk about school consolidation [with my customers] because it’s an emotional thing… You lose your school, you lose your identity.”
Gradually, as rural population decreased, as transportation systems got better and the need for advanced educational opportunities increased, the number of school districts in the state dropped even further. There are now – as of 2002 – 534 school districts in Nebraska. That number is less than tenth the peak number of over 7,200, yet Nebraska still has more districts than most, more populace states.