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Big Money doesn’t help Small Schools

Steve BucksteinQuickPoint!

The biggest private foundation in the world is pouring millions of dollars into creating some of America’s smallest high schools. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are being used in Oregon and around the country to break up large high schools, creating small schools-within-schools designed to improve student learning.

The small schools concept seems sound, but it now appears that dumping large amounts of cash into creating smaller schools is not. The small schools that do better academically grew up organically; they weren’t artificially created by renaming different floors of the same old brick building.

The Medford Mail Tribune reported this week that the Gates Foundation is pulling the grant that helped Lebanon High School break into four small academies. It seems parents and students are complaining that the change didn’t enhance learning, but disrupted it. Teachers are frustrated over scheduling problems and see the change as just another in a long line of fads that didn’t work.

Jefferson High School in Portland is another experiment in the small school movement. Skeptics point to the 30 years of failed reforms at Jefferson and worry that small schools imposed from the top will also fail.

The fact that the Gates Foundation is not willing to continue funding top down failed experiments is heartening. Even more heartening would be its willingness to fund bottom up reforms such as school choice programs in which parents and students make their own decisions about what is best for their education.

Steve Buckstein is senior policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland, Oregon based think tank.

© 2006, Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and Cascade Policy Institute are cited. Contact Cascade at (503) 242-0900 to arrange print or broadcast interviews on this topic. For more topics visit the QuickPoint! archive.

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