WASHINGTON – School districts in the United States face special challenges when fracking operations draw new students to their communities and administrators have difficulty planning for resources and funding in cycles of boom and bust, according to a new study released on Thursday.
The six-state study found that K-12 school districts adjacent to hydraulic fracturing sites do not fare any better economically than schools in non-fracking areas.
Scholars from Resources for the Future (RFF), an independent, nonpartisan economic research organization, examined how school districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, and Colorado fared between 2000 and 2013.
The conclusion was based on an evaluation of data and interviews from parents and students in the districts. The boom and bust cycle of the industry was found to create overwhelming stress on local districts as students and teachers were moving in and out of a region to meet the economic demands of drilling, study co-author Laura Zachary said in a webinar presentation Thursday.
The student and teacher turnover rate, along with corresponding economic volatility in educational resources at the local level, and an inability of local communities to absorb rapid economic fluctuations, created an uneven balance between costs and benefits, said Nathan Ratledge, the study’s lead author.
“New teachers must be hired, and principals had to conduct long, expensive nationwide searches,” Ratledge said at the web conference hosted by RFF and Penn State University. “High housing prices were a fact of life, and within two or three years, the new teachers used their experience and went back home. There was a consistently high turnover rate. This puts up red flags for student learning and also principals are constantly trying deal with the costs to restaff and retrain.”
In a telling trend, one North Dakota district showed a significant decline in per pupil revenue and an increase in expenditures over the thirteen-year period. Even when significant revenues did appear, the study found that greater revenues do not always translate into increased educational outcomes, and in fact, “revenue from one source may [or may not] crowd out revenue from other sources,” as the cycle of residual operational costs continue to rise. One western Colorado school district had to operate on a four-day-a week schedule and cut academic programs because of increased economic volatility.
The study did find one trend that bucked previous studies: high school dropouts in the six states did not leave school to work in the oil and gas industry. In every state, dropouts were not influenced by the industry, because the fracking business is complex and presents many barriers to entry for the typical high school student. Previous studies always had concluded that the industry was luring students away from the classroom.
Overall, the study found that the rural communities adjacent to fracking often lacked an infrastructure and operational plan when costs of services increased. The result was greater demand for some public services — water, sewage, roads, and schools – and each took a share of new monies. Funding for public housing frequently decreased, which caused additional problems in those districts.
“As demand for housing went up and low-income families were pushed out, schools were also dealing with increased homelessness and family instability,” said panelist Kathy Brasier, of Penn State.