1960s consolidations transformed Indiana schools

Education in Indiana went through a huge transformation around 50 years ago, when a wave of school consolidations dramatically reduced the number of small school districts. With the Indiana Chamber of Commerce pushing for more mergers, now is a good to time to revisit that history.

The impetus was the Indiana School Reorganization Act of 1959, which called for each county to develop and implement a reorganization plan. The effort reduced the number of school districts from 966 to 402. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students fell from 801 to 156.

Myers Grade School

Myers Grade School in Cannelton. Cannelton is one of the smallest districts in Indiana with about 260 students in grades K-12.

“It was a remarkable change,” said longtime Indiana school administrator Harmon Baldwin, who was one of many local decision-makers in the school reorganization process.

Some school districts reorganized earlier, paving the way for a statewide law. Baldwin credited Howard County with the first modern-day consolidation in the 1940s. In Marion County, township districts built new, modern high schools and moved to being governed by school boards rather than township trustees. But they rejected merging with Indianapolis city schools.

With the 1959 law, a state school reorganization commission oversaw the county efforts but didn’t dictate local plans. J.B. “Heavy” Kohlmeyer, a Purdue agriculture economics professor, led the commission and used his considerable political skills to prod the local panels to act.

“The American High School Today,” an influential report by retired Harvard president James B. Conant, was published in 1959 and reinforced the push for consolidation. Conant argued that modern high schools needed to be large enough to have 100 students in each class.

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