Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


School districts proliferated during the settling of the Great Plains. As the region became sprinkled with small communities and rural settlements, school districts were formed. Geographic distance, the platting of agricultural land in large sections, and a widely dispersed population all combined to make the rural school the only viable way to deliver education to the children of an expanding agricultural population. The increase in school districts was also accelerated by state policies. Later, as the region's population declined, the number of schools followed suit. In the period of decline, population decreases and waves of consolidation efforts have worked to reduce the number of school districts.

Up to the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the region sustained large numbers of school districts. In the peak year of 1924 there were 56,121 school districts in Great Plains states, with Kansas alone having 9,326. The Canadian Prairie Provinces showed a similar pattern: by the 1930s Saskatchewan reported 4,000 school districts and Manitoba 1,700. Significant population declines followed the droughts and economic crisis that struck the Great Plains in the thirties. By the end of the 1960s the states and provinces of the Great Plains had closed many of their school districts. In the U.S. portion of the region, by 1968 only 4,822 school districts remained.

The school districts that sprang up in the Great Plains were filled with thousands of one-teacher country schools. By 1931, of the 143,391 one-teacher schools in existence in the United States, more than 41,000 were located in the rural parts of the Great Plains, with Kansas leading the numbers with 6,983 and Nebraska close behind with 6,136. State policies encouraged the formation of school districts. In Kansas a county superintendent could create school districts as long as there were fifteen persons of school age in the new district. In South Dakota residents could petition a county board for a new school as long as there were seven children living within three miles of the proposed school. In Colorado a majority of local voters could create a district. State educational policy was compatible with the economic development policies of the settlement era, policies that sought to populate the Great Plains region.

In the 1920s and 1930s states began exercising their constitutional authority to organize school districts differently. In some states the boundaries of the town or community became coterminous with the boundaries of the school district. Some states created county boards with the authority to consolidate schools in their jurisdictions. Outside the Plains, the state of Washington set up a commission to oversee consolidation plans in the 1940s. In the Great Plains region, Colorado, North Dakota, and Kansas followed suit. Beliefs about what constituted an adequate educational program drove these efforts. Small schools simply could not provide the range of curricula that educational experts had determined should be offered.

Beginning in the early thirties, as dirt roads gave way to paved streets and automobiles facilitated travel to district commercial centers, school districts began to disappear on the prairie and in very small communities. This disappearance was hastened by successive waves of consolidation efforts. The first reorganization period was characterized by a national initiative to reduce the number of rural country schools. Small elementary districts, with their classic one-room schoolhouses, were combined with larger K-12 districts. By 1970 only 1,572 one-teacher schools remained in the Great Plains states, and Kansas, the leader in such schools in 1931, had none. A second wave of consolidation efforts began in the 1960s with what was called the Great Plains School District Organization Project. Funded by federal dollars under Title V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, this project set out to provide both an educational argument and an economic case for consolidating school districts into larger administrative units. This consolidation effort met with stiff resistance and generated heated debate, and the Great Plains District Organization Project did not immediately lead to large numbers of school district closures. But school districts have since declined in number as pressure to consolidate has continued unabated from state agencies and educational experts. In the 1980s and 1990s the successful reorganization of school districts was carried out by state legislatures as almost all of the states and Canadian provinces forced the realignment of school district boundaries.

Throughout this period there has been resistance. Representatives of rural communities and small towns have argued that a school district is an essential part of their economic and cultural well-being. Supporters of consolidation efforts typically argue that economies of scale as well as adequate educational programming demand consolidation into larger administrative units. No definitive research has established that one particular organizational scheme of education works better than another. The forces that now buffet rural schools are mainly economic. Dependent more and more upon state sources of funding, since a sparse population no longer supports a property tax base to provide for rural education, rural schools have an uncertain future in the Great Plains.

Miles T. Bryant University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Dawson, Howard. "Trends in School District Reorganization." Phi Delta Kappan 32 (1951): 302–7.

Phillips, Charles. "District Reorganization in Canada." Phi Delta Kappan 32 (1951): 308–12.

Purdy, Ralph. The Great Plains School District Reorganization Project. Lincoln: Nebraska Department of Education, 1968.

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