The idea of school district consolidation comes up from time to time, and with good reason. School administrators don’t teach children, teachers do. How many districts does Kansas need?
But first let’s ask another question. “How many churches does Kansas need?” Or how about, “How many grocery stores does Kansas need?” The answer: As many–or as few–as people want. They express their preferences by attendance and donations, in the case of churches, and by purchases, in the case of grocery stores.
There’s no need for legislative hearings or blue-ribbon panels when it comes to meeting human needs for spiritual expression or obtaining food.
But there are plenty of hearings when it comes to education. Why? Because, at least for children under 18, education is funded almost entirely through the political process. Property taxes, for the most part, go to education. Some portion of sales and income taxes, do, too, as well as numerous special taxes. And of course, questions about what to tax (the “base,” which may be wages, investment income, property wealth, etc.), how to tax (sales tax, income t ax), and how much to tax (the rate) are inevitably political questions.
So on the income side, education is a political animal. And it’s political in another way: Once governments collect money in the name of education, the money has to be spent somehow.This may or may not be done at a government institution. Money in the Pell Grant program? Spent at public or private universities. Money parents can claim as a tax credit for early childhood education? Spent at public or private schools. Money allocated for food stamps? Spent at Dillons, Wal-Mart or any number of other privately owned companies, and certainly not at stores operated at the Department of Grocery Stores.
When it comes to education of children between ages 5 and 18, however, the money can be spent only at certain institutions, called “public schools
But only certain institutions–“public schools”–can receive the money collected through taxes for the purpose of education. Naturally, that makes them subject to the political process. A bevy of politicians, ranging from an elected local school board to the United States Congress, leave their mark on institutions that in spirit and in fact are units of government, which is to say, subject to politics.
So back to the question: How many districts does Kansas need? Politicians may consult science, but at the end of the day, political decisions are answered on the basis of which groups have political power, what group can get its value system or economic interests recognized, and what comes out of the hurly burly of political debate.
Coming up: A look at how some states have addressed the question of school districts.