Smaller Schools, Districts, & Classes

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The research overwhelmingly shows that students tend to do better in smaller, more personalized learning environments. Perhaps counterintuitively, smaller (or at least medium-sized) districts and schools are also often more cost-efficient as well as more effective for student performance.

Smaller Schools

Smaller SchoolsNew Mexico’s graduation rate ranks second from the bottom of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only 54.1% of New Mexico’s children graduate from high school, compared with a national average of 70.6%. An average of 77 students drop out each school day across New Mexico—nearly 14,000 per year.

Decades of research have shown that smaller schools have higher graduation rates, higher student achievement, lower levels of student alienation and violence, and higher levels of satisfaction among students, parents, principals, and teachers. Small schools also dramatically improve the performance of low-income children, which helps to narrow the persistent achievement gap.

The most effective high school size, according to the research, is 600-900 students. Yet in the 2021–2022 school year, more than half of New Mexico ninth graders entered high schools with populations larger than 1,000 students, and the state continues to spend millions of dollars annually building large schools.

Small schools are not only better for students, they also cost less to build and operate. Researchers have found that the most efficient schools are those serving 300-900 students. Schools larger than this experience “diseconomies of scale”: inefficiencies and increased costs that result from increases in bureaucracy, security, and transportation. In addition, if the operational cost of a school is calculated “per graduate” rather than “per student,” small schools are substantially more efficient than large schools because their dropout rates are much lower.

The capital costs of small schools can also be far less per student than those of large schools if the small schools are designed to take advantage of community educational resources like gymnasiums, pools, libraries, and sports fields, rather than duplicating these facilities. Several New Mexico charter schools have successfully applied this community-based model, at a savings of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Think New Mexico recommends that the legislature and governor enact legislation limiting the size of new schools built in New Mexico at no more than 400 students for elementary and middle schools and no more than 900 students for high schools.

Smaller Districts

Research going back more than four decades, in jurisdictions ranging from California to West Virginia, has found that larger school districts tend to have negative impacts on student achievement, particularly for students from low-income families.

While most New Mexico school districts are small, Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is the 35th largest school district in the nation according to the National Cen-ter for Education Statistics, with an enrollment of 72,088 students as of 2021 (not counting the district’s charter schools).

Sadly, APS students underperform the rest of the state. As a 2022 analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) put it, APS is plagued by “low proficiency rates, large achievement gaps, lower post-pandemic learning growth, lagging high school graduation rates, and falling college enrollment and readiness.” Because about a quarter of all students in New Mexico attend APS, the underperformance of this district weighs heavily on the entire state—and likewise, improving the performance of APS students would lift the entire state’s education rankings.

The enormous size of APS makes it impossible to govern well. For example, with 143 schools (not counting the charters), even the most active and committed superintendent could not visit all of them more than once during a school year.
Similarly, each APS school board member represents over 90,000 people. Compare this to the state’s most successful small districts where each board member represents just a few hundred to a few thousand New Mexicans. As with the superintendent, it would be impossible for even the hardest-working, most dedicated school board member to effectively communicate with and be responsive to over 90,000 people. Deconsolidating APS into smaller districts would allow board members to be closer to their constituents, better representing the diverse interests of different parts of the city.

Deconsolidating APS would also likely results in cost savings, as decades of research have shown that, once school districts exceed a certain size, they begin to suffer from diseconomies of scale, becoming more expensive to operate than medium-sized districts.

According to the most recent data available from PED, the average cost per pupil of school districts enrolling 15,001–25,000 students, the size tier just below APS, is $7,284. The cost per pupil at APS is $7,532. That $248 difference, when multiplied across APS’s 72,088 students, adds up to nearly $18 million.

Think New Mexico recommends that the legislature and governor enact a law requiring any district larger than 35,000 students to place a question on the next election ballot asking the public whether they would like to deconsolidate it into smaller districts.

Smaller Classes

The research indicates that smaller class sizes can result in meaningful long-term improvements in student outcomes. Studies and surveys have also shown that smaller class sizes have a positive impact on the working environment for teachers. Smaller classes reduce teacher stress and allow teachers to provide more personalized instruction, which is particularly important as they deal with increased behavioral problems in the wake of the pandemic.

Since 1986, New Mexico has capped class sizes in statute. Currently, those caps are 20 students for kindergarten; 22 for grades 1–3; and 24 for grades 4–6. In high school, the class size caps are specific to English courses, and are 27 students for grades 7–8 and 30 students for grades 9–12.

However, since at least 2005, the state has issued waivers to allow classes to exceed these caps.

Think New Mexico recommends that the legislature and governor prohibit the granting of waivers of class size limits and keep the student-teacher ratio at a manageable level.

Legislative Update

Smaller SchoolsDuring the 2009 legislative session, Think New Mexico championed legislation to incentivize the state’s school districts to build smaller schools. The bill (Senate Bill 255) passed the Senate 28-11, but ran out of time in the House. In 2011, Think New Mexico’s legislation (Senate Bill 2) was unanimously approved by both the Senate Education and Senate Finance Committees. In 2012, Think New Mexico assisted the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education in enacting a resolution that limited the size of new elementary schools in the district.

News Coverage: Smaller Schools

newspapericon-smallRead Think New Mexico’s opinion editorial about how smaller schools tend to be safer • May 13, 2018

newspapericon-smallRead an opinion editorial published in the Rio Grande Sun about why the small school of Velarde Elemntary should remain open • June 25, 2015

newspapericon-smallRead a letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal about what the top ten performing schools in the state have in common: their small size • August 9, 2012

newspapericon-smallRead an editorial from the Albuquerque Journal about the benefits of smaller schools. • May 28, 2012

newspapericon-smallRead a column by Deming Headlight columnist Win Mott on the importance of small schools for the students and community of Deming. • June 30, 2011

newspapericon-smallRead an article from the New Mexico Business Weekly on the support for smaller schools from all across the political spectrum. • February 18, 2011

newspapericon-smallRead an editorial from the Albuquerque Journal about how smaller schools help New Mexico’s most vulnerable students succeed. • January 15, 2011

newspapericon-smallRead an article in Capitol Report New Mexico about how much higher the graduation rates are in New Mexico’s small schools than in its large schools. • September 30, 2010

newspapericon-smallRead an opinion editorial on why smaller schools are a cost effective education reform, authored by Paul Gessing of the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation • January 10, 2010

newspapericon-smallRead editorials from the Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican advocating for smaller schools as part of the solution to New Mexico’s dropout crisis • August 2009

blogicon-smallRead syndicated columnist Jay Miller’s blog entry on Think New Mexico’s small schools initiative • March 11, 2009

blogicon-smallRead La Jicarita News article on 2009 smaller schools bill • February 2009

radioicon-smallListen to KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio “Journey Home” story on smaller schools • January 8, 2009 (mp3, 14:36)

newspapericon-smallRead New Mexico Business Weekly story on Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative • December 5, 2008

tvicon-smallWatch KWES NewsWest Channel 9 report on Think New Mexico’s smaller schools initiative • October 22, 2008 (1:57)

newspapericon-smallRead Albuquerque Journal editorial in support of Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative • October 11, 2008

newspapericon-smallRead Santa Fe New Mexican editorial endorsing Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative • October 17, 2008

blogicon-smallRead Mario Burgos blog entry on Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative • October 14, 2008

radioicon-smallListen to KUNM Public Radio report on small schools • October 9, 2008 (mp3, 1:45)

newspapericon-smallRead Santa Fe New Mexican article on Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative • October 5, 2008

newspapericon-smallRead Union County Leader article on Think New Mexico’s smaller schools reform initiative

Santa Fe Case Study

Learn More About Think New Mexico’s Campaign to Make Small Elementary Schools Accessible to Every Child in Santa Fe

newspapericon-smallThink New Mexico joined with legislators to question the legality of the Santa Fe Public School District’s diversion of bond money to consolidate small schools – read our opinion editorial in the Albuquerque Journal NorthJuly 25, 2010

radioicon-smallListen to KSFR Santa Fe Public Radio story on Think New Mexico’s work on small schools in Santa Fe • July 20, 2010 (mp3, 5:09)

radioicon-smallListen to Fred Nathan’s presentation to the Santa Fe Public School Board about why the district should not consolidate its smaller schools, broadcast on KSFR Santa Fe Public RadioMay 7, 2010 (mp3, 1:51)

radioicon-smallListen to KUNM Public Radio report on Think New Mexico’s proposal to save Santa Fe’s small schools • April 21, 2010 (mp3, 8:05)

newspapericon-smallThe Albuquerque Journal editorializes against the Santa Fe school district’s plan to close small, neighborhood schools

radioicon-smallListen to Fred Nathan’s presentation to the Santa Fe Public School Board about why the district should not consolidate its smaller schools, broadcast on KSFR Santa Fe Public RadioMay 7, 2010 (mp3, 1:51)

newspapericon-smallRead Think New Mexico’s plan to make small schools accessible to every child in Santa Fe, as it appeared in the Albuquerque Journal North, as well as the paper’s supportive editorial

 

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