As students across the country prepare to return to school in person, many children living in rural areas will do so in schools brand-new to them and far from home. From Maine to Massachusetts to Indiana to Virginia to Wyoming, state and local legislators are advocating for school consolidation as a way to manage the costly infrastructure repairs, dropping school enrollments and teacher shortages many rural communities face.

But although consolidation plans make some sense, researchers have long warned of the ways school closures erode rural communities and hurt students, including shuttered businesses and beleaguered Main Streets.

The problem is that although such costs are well documented, policymakers continue to promote urban over rural interests. Rather than seeing rural communities as deserving of infrastructure and investments, too often decision-makers opt for policies that disregard the particular needs of rural people. In the school debates, this means consolidation.

School consolidation in rural areas began in the early 20th century as young people moved increasingly to cities and away from the farms where they were raised. Myriad forces, including tractors replacing horses, enabled farms to grow, displacing many small farmers whose children became a part of the exodus. Others left for industrial jobs and the attractions of city life.

The nation’s first generation of rural sociologists, working in predominantly Midwestern universities, went to great pains to analyze the trend of cityward migration among White rural youths. They explained as early as 1915 that it was the “fittest” who were leaving the countryside, and that “the cream was being skimmed off.” The finest rural youths, these researchers warned, were heading to cities.

And this was having a deleterious effect on rural spaces. University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross argued in 1922 that the “folk depletion” caused by talented rural youths departing the countryside left the farming areas of the Midwest “fished out ponds populated chiefly by bullheads and suckers.”

This analysis was driven by ideas of social Darwinism, which argued that the powerful people in society were innately better than the weak. Adherents of social Darwinism also believed in racial hierarchy.

According to Ross, this human resource drain meant that America was committing “race suicide.” The cities, full of supposedly less intelligent people from Southern and Eastern Europe who were immigrating to the United States in substantial numbers, would corrupt America’s White, “Anglo-Saxon” farm kids.

To stem the flow of young people from their rural landscapes, school reformers sought to improve schools — by making them more like urban ones. Stanford University’s famous education dean, Ellwood Cubberley, who had himself left Indiana’s countryside for the city, led the conversation, arguing that the great task facing the nation was to “urbanize our rural schools.” If the schools offered students an urban education, they could stay home instead of moving to cities where the racial stock of the country threatened to be diluted.

Cubberley was enamored with the implications of social Darwinism. He was convinced that Ross was right about the cityward drain of talented rural youths and the damage this might do to the health of American society, which he understood as linked to the thriving of rural, White, native-born people.

Certain that the rural population needed “saving,” Cubberley wrote that the sorry state of the nation’s rural schools “calls for the reorganization of rural education under some authority of larger jurisdiction and knowledge than that of the district-school trustee.” Rural students too often attended a one-room building ill-equipped with textbooks and other educational aids, in Cubberley’s estimation. Their teachers were far too tolerant of students being tardy or absent due to pressing farm tasks. Worse, rural students were not segregated by age. In fact, quite often, older students were teaching younger ones.

Although he venerated the White racial stock of American’s farm communities in theory, Cubberley also assumed that rural people were not up to the task of transforming their schools. The solution, he argued, was a socially efficient school system governed and managed by professionally trained administrators.

In the view of many school reformers, the dearth of professional expertise in rural schools contributed to the “rural-life problem,” that is, the cityward migration of rural youths and the erosion of the rural community. “The whole rural-life problem has now become too complex to be solved by local effort alone, and nothing short of a reorganization of rural education, along good educational and administrative lines, will meet the needs of the present and of the future.” For Cubberley, professionally trained administrators could bring urban-type schools to the country and prevent folks from ever leaving home.

But delivering urban education to sparsely populated communities, where schoolhouses were sometimes one room, or where one teacher taught students regardless of age cohort, was a massive challenge. Reformers argued that consolidating several small rural schools into one larger institution would allow professional administrators to organize students by age and bring to the countryside the bureaucratized approaches to supervision and evaluation that characterized early-20th-century urban public schooling. The self-evident wisdom of consolidation became a part of Cubberley’s curriculum for school administrators, and it was replicated quickly in universities across the country.

Consolidation as a synonym for school improvement was never seriously challenged during the 20th century, and generations of administrators moved through their careers convinced of the efficacy of closing rural schools. As a result, the nation went from approximately 120,000 school districts in 1930, to fewer than 14,000 today, and from more than 250,000 schools in 1919, to fewer than 130,000 today.

But school consolidation didn’t do what Ross and Cubberley hoped. Young people continued to move to cities. Rural communities continued to lose population.

And there’s evidence that the consolidated schools, modeled on bringing urban education norms to rural spaces, didn’t serve those communities well. When small schools closed, shuffling students onto buses to larger, consolidated schools, their small towns lost out. Businesses and home values in places that lost schools fell, and the social fabric of the community eroded. Twenty-first-century research on consolidation demonstrates a long history of failing to make good on any claims of merit — students didn’t necessarily receive a better education at the bigger, more centralized schools.

Inequality mounted. Take the case of Dawson County, Neb., where the number of public schools recently dropped from 37 to 19. That county, which has a substantial Latino population, saw segregation in remaining schools increase as schools closed. School closures have also exacerbated inequitable school funding formulas, while limiting the choices parents can make about their children’s education.

These outcomes stem from a long history of treating rural communities as blank slates just waiting to absorb urban models. That the progenitors of school consolidation were thinking in stark racial terms about protecting White communities from what they viewed as their degenerate urban counterparts shows that the well-being of students and communities was never on their minds.

The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated that much can be done technologically to add educational value, and that is certainly the case for rural schools and communities. Instead of closing schools, we could opt to upgrade facilities or jump-start new school construction to meet people where they are and invest in communities. After a century of community-eroding consolidations that brought little — if any — educational advantage to rural students, it’s time to begin to repair the damage.