More on District Consolidation–from Pennsylvania

My friends at Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation offer another cautionary commentary about district consolidation.

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In the movie Men in Black, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) carries a small device that flashes, allowing him to make people forget meeting him (or seeing aliens).  Gov. Rendell may have a similar device, to use on legislators—or on himself.

In his budget address, he called on lawmakers to form a commission to study the issue of consolidating school districts, and present recommendations.  Gov. Rendell seems to have forgotten that the General Assembly commissioned a study on school district consolidation a mere two years ago.

This study concluded that school district consolidation would not be much of a cost saver. While some of the small districts might become more efficient, school districts above 3,000 students tend to be less efficient.  This coincides with research done by Andrew Coulson, who found that districts of about 2,900 students are the most cost efficient. That legislative study concluded that there were only 88 districts ripe for consolidation, into 34 districts, a reduction of 54 districts—a far cry from Governor Rendell’s desire to consolidate 500 districts into 100.

An Allegheny Institute analysis notes that consolidation to 100 districts would mean an average district size of 17,000 students.  Only five districts currently have 17,000 or more students, and spend an average of $14,500 per pupil—about $1,200 more than the state average.  They also note that these districts have some of the worst academic performance in the state.  Research by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters further indicates that having fewer, larger districts results in a higher percentage of student dropout and reduces graduation rates.

Across Pennsylvania, the largest fifth of districts (with Philadelphia excluded) spend substantially more per pupil than those middle-size districts. The per-pupil costs in the smallest fifth of districts are also above average, but those districts’ combined budgets account for only about 6% of total spending.  Where school districts are concerned, the evidence suggests the opposite: consolidating small and medium-sized districts into larger districts would reduce efficiency and increase costs to taxpayers.

Spending Per Pupil by Pennsylvania School Districts 2007-08
Districts By Enrollment Avg. Enrollment Total Expenditures Instruction Support Services Non-Instructional Construction and Debt
Top 100 7,334 $13,686.68 $7,909.17 $3,975.20 $186.59 $1,615.72
Second 100 3,480 $12,898.78 $7,271.51 $3,806.27 $218.29 $1,602.71
Middle 100 2,281 $12,395.51 $6,902.11 $3,680.88 $223.41 $1,589.12
Fourth 100 1,508 $12,528.66 $7,026.49 $3,706.68 $249.84 $1,545.65
Bottom 99 856 $13,793.50 $7,581.23 $4,056.78 $268.18 $1,887.31
Districts By Enrollment Avg. Enrollment Administration Business Maintenance
of Plant
Student
Transportation
Top 100 7,334 $749.46 $137.30 $1,178.83 $705.28
Second 100 3,480 $730.25 $160.50 $1,134.01 $688.30
Middle 100 2,281 $759.00 $169.48 $1,089.09 $693.42
Fourth 100 1,508 $754.77 $176.89 $1,089.69 $721.48
Bottom 99 856 $932.68 $235.24 $1,149.85 $740.82
Exclude largest (Philadelphia) and smallest (Bryn Athyn) districts in PA
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education; Calculations by the Commonwealth Foundation

Why would consolidation fail to achieve the cost savings Gov. Rendell hopes for? While measures such as bulk purchasing and cross-district health trusts are sensible cost-savings measures, these can already occur without consolidation.  It’s possible that some administrative savings might materialize, but it won’t help that some superintendents will become “assistant superintendents” and others will expect large raises.   The notion that larger districts have fewer administrators per pupil runs counter to experience.

The single largest school cost item (about half of every district’s budget) is teacher salaries and benefits.  These would become standardized over the newly merged districts.  Does anyone believe that salaries will be standardized at any level lower than the highest prevailing in the county?

As long as school board directors can negotiate contracts in secret and vote on them without any chance for public comment, it hardly matters whether the district represents a small area or a large county.

If cost savings is truly a goal for Pennsylvania schools, a good first step would be greater transparency.  The public should have access to greater information about how school districts spend tax dollars and adequate information as contracts are being negotiated. SchoolBoardTransparency.org was launched with just such a goal in mind.

Another good step is expanding school choice options, which cost far less than traditional public schools.  Charter and cyber schools typically cost taxpayers only about 70% of the cost of district-run schools, while Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit sends students to the school of their choice with scholarships worth less than one-tenth the cost of traditional public schools.

Gov. Rendell hopes that lawmakers forgot the research finding consolidation would not provide savings to taxpayers.  His plan fails to address real reform that can reduce costs and improve the quality of schools.

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