WASHINGTON—Unconventional oil and gas development, such as fracking, has revolutionized the global energy marketplace, particularly in the United States. Rapid industrial expansion and swings, however, also have had significant and widespread impacts at the community level. Now, a study just posted by Resources for the Future (RFF) provides an in-depth look at some of the effects of that growth at the ground level: the educational and social impacts occurring in school classes from prekindergarten through twelfth grade in six oil- and gas-producing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, and Colorado.
The report’s authors are Nathan Ratledge, co-principle investigator for RFF’s Shale Schools Project; and Laura Zachary, an independent energy and climate conslutant. The study—Impacts of Unconventional Oil and Gas Booms on Public Education: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of Six Producing States—employs a mixed-methods design that couples statistical analysis and over 70 in-person interviews with education professionals to reveal a series of key insights:
- An evaluation of the effect of energy resource booms on pre-K–12 public schools reveals divergent trends in student enrollment, student-teacher ratios, and per pupil revenue and expenses.
- Student enrollment, particularly in the younger grades, was statistically higher in boom districts than in non-boom districts in North Dakota. Conversely, Marcellus boom districts experienced a statistically significant decline in student enrollment compared with non-boom districts.
- Interviews in North Dakota revealed that the greater challenge was exceptionally high levels of student mobility—a trend that was commonly referred to as a “revolving door.” Not knowing when a student might arrive or leave created distinct challenges for budgeting and curriculum planning.
- Financial effects were divergent between school districts in the eastern versus western United States. North Dakota boom districts experienced a statistically significant decline in per pupil funding, whereas Marcellus boom districts had a statistically positive increase in per pupil revenue.
- From an expense perspective, less money was spent on educational services within North Dakota, whereas statistically more money was spent on capital projects. The decrease in per pupil educational spending raises red flags for long-term effects.
- Education professionals across all regions expressed several similar themes, including the following:
- Despite what is often seen in the literature and heard in public sentiment, there was very little concern about high school students leaving school early to work in the industry.
- Nearly all districts reported heightened stress from the financial volatility of oil and gas markets.
- Given the consistent headwinds facing many oil and gas boom regions, research on local impacts is important to help address ongoing policy challenges within each state, particularly in light of the new and in-depth observations of regional-specific impacts.
The authors conclude by noting that industrial booms and benefits do come with concerns. They write: “Did public school districts in regions with high levels of oil and gas production during the recent unconventional energy booms fare better or worse in terms of financial and educational performance outcomes than comparable school districts that did not experience a boom? Although some distinct local benefits from unconventional oil and gas booms have occurred, including within public education, the net impact has not been strictly positive. Instead, it appears that most regions in this study struggled to manage the impacts of uncertainty and volatility to school districts in the short term. Furthermore, with rapidly changing student numbers in the West and prevalent revenue uncertainty across all high-producing regions, students enrolled in boom school districts remain at risk of long-term negative impacts.”