District Consolidation Could Affect School Choice, Competition

Published May 1, 2005

As per-pupil spending continues to rise and student achievement scores sink across the nation, legislators in several states are considering school district consolidation as a way to lower costs and deliver better education to students.

State legislators in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and West Virginia say sharing costs–particularly administrative costs–could make their school districts more financially efficient and better able to deliver quality education to students.

“I’m convinced the potential gains in efficiency are considerable,” Nebraska State Sen. Ron Raikes (Nonpartisan-Lincoln) told the Omaha World-Herald on February 10.

Raikes, who chairs the state’s Senate Education Committee, is promoting a bill that would merge all elementary schools administratively to K-12 districts over the next few years. A similar bill in South Dakota calls for K-8 schools with fewer than 100 students to join a district with a high school.

Concerns Cited

The short-term benefits of consolidation are widely acknowledged, but long-term concerns should be considered carefully, said Jack Wenders, professor emeritus at the University of Idaho and senior fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation.

“Over the long haul, consolidation necessarily sucks power upward, away from local control, to where it can be more easily captured by special interests,” Wenders said. “At the same time, consolidation homogenizes policies, curriculum, pay, and working conditions across the disparate schools below.”

Wenders believes consolidation negatively affects parental choice and competition, also.

“Schools tend to become larger and more remote from parents. Research shows that consolidation reduces competition among urban school districts and widens the span of district-wide collective bargaining,” Wenders explained. “This, in turn, increases the clout of the teachers’ unions, raises per-pupil costs, and reduces student performance.”

Savings Doubted

Vicki Murray, director of the Center for Educational Opportunity at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, agrees.

“These scale savings are illusory and actually come at the expense of classroom instruction,” Murray said. “Decades of empirical evidence show consolidation leads to administrative bloat, not streamlining.

“The decision to consolidate should be left to local communities and not made on the basis of economies-of-scale savings claims,” Murray said. “Such claims, made by proponents at the state level, do not take into consideration the attendant upheaval, expense, and social impacts–especially in rural communities. Basically, there is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ size for a district or school.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C.

For more information …

Visit the Web sites of the Commonwealth Foundation, http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org, and the Goldwater Institute, http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org.