Should Kansas Cut the Number of Districts in Half?

The Division of Legislative Post Audit released a report (108 pages in PDF) looking at the possibility of consolidating school districts.

Kansas Reporter, an effort sponsored by the Kansas Policy Institute, has a write-up that describes some of the main qualities of the report. The auditors said that the state might save $18 to $183 million. The latter number reflects cutting the number of districts down to 152, or half from just a few years ago.

Here are some (admittedly) scattered thoughts on the subject:

1. One curiosity about the report is that much of the savings stem from the state no longer having to pay “low-enrollment” weighting to districts–since those districts would be merged out of existence, into larger districts. There’s nothing sacred about the enrollment formula, however, meaning that some savings could be found apart from consolidation, simply by doing away with low-enrollment weighting. (Whether districts could be financially sustainable without that weighting, however, is another question.)

2. The state’s fiscal crisis may be an occasion not only for rethinking the number of districts in the state, but how the state funds education. The flow of funding is unnecessarily complex, trying to achieve many things at once. One alternative is to shift all funding to the state, and employ weighted student funding, so that, for example, every student carries a given amount of money with him to the school of his choice. The “weighted” in “weighted student funding” could be used so that, say, students who were academically deficit could be “worth more” to a school.

3. What’s the best way for organizations to consolidate? Consolidation occurs all the time in industry: Spring and Nextel; Exxon and Mobil; and the former “Big 8” accounting firms are but a few examples. In those cases, however, the mergers are in response to market pressures. In the case of schools, mergers would be due to political pressures–namely, the plummeting fortunes of the state budget.

4. The possibility of district consolidation may be an occasion for everyone to rethink the way we “do” education. Virtual schooling may play a hand in educating children in sparsely populated areas, for example. Education entrepreneurs might also come up with new business models of schools–say, by developing something along the lines of a “charter district.”

5. Finally, some of the concerns about consolidation are legitimate–long bus rides, and whether resulting school buildings might be “too big.” But other concerns–losing sports rivalries, losing jobs, etc.–reflect the fact that public schooling is often about more than seeing to it that children have an opportunity to learn.

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