When school districts consolidate: pros & cons

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and the state’s legislators are considering the consolidation of school districts in order to save the state money. Quinn has stated that there are 270 school superintendents who make salaries higher than that of the Governor. Quinn is planning to place Lt. Governor Sheila Simon in charge of this effort, due to her experience as an educator and concern for the school system.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is on record as favoring the addition of incentives to sweeten the deal for local districts that are merging. This might include building a new school for two districts that merge, or paying off the debt of a school to make it more attractive as a merger partner.

The Governor’s office notes that the incentive model has been tried in the past with only limited success, presumably leaving the state with forced consolidation as the primary method.

There are several considerations with the school consolidation issue that do not seem to have gotten the attention of the decision makers, or perhaps they would just rather not talk about them. Proponents of consolidation always mention the savings, but it should be noted that some costs will go up, not down. Governor Quinn has proposed lowering the transportation budget for the districts at the same time that students will have to travel longer distances to get to their classes. These costs will continue to rise as the cost of gasoline rises, which seems likely to continue over the long term.

In areas where school consolidation has occurred, it has been noted that cons for larger schools include a loss of personalization for students whether troubled or gifted. There is also the problem of uprooting children from schools where they are established and putting them in a larger milieu they may be poorly prepared to deal with, particularly important for more rural areas. Many communities will fight to maintain local control over their schools, and will resent any effort to remove or weaken their influence on their children’s education.

Even if there are many administrators who make more than the Governor, they will not be the only layoffs to occur as a result of consolidation. The economic impact to local communities from this lost revenue is another blow to economies already hard hit.

The New Rules Project has documented advantages of small schools, including improved dropout rates, higher grades and higher rates of college attendance. The “cost savings” of larger schools are only apparent if the results are ignored. If we consider the goal of schools to be improving the lives of students, enabling them to be better citizens, and earning higher incomes (therefore paying higher taxes) then smaller schools are actually much more cost effective than larger schools. All of that is before you even begin to factor in such things as “sense of community” or physical safety which can be difficult to quantify, but that we know are greatly enhanced in smaller schools.

Parental involvement is much greater for smaller schools than for larger schools. This factor is picked up on by children who value education higher when they see their parents taking a personal interest in it. The attendance rates of smaller schools are higher than the larger schools, attesting to the sense of community felt by students of the smaller schools.

Many studies have attested to the negative impact of poverty on educational prospects of students. Many are unaware that this is mitigated in smaller schools; in fact reducing the size of the school is directly tied to improved outcomes for the students whose families are in poverty!

Studies also show  smaller schools being safer than  larger schools. Comparisons done of schools in high crime parts of cities found direct correlations between the level of violence and the size of the school, with smaller schools being much less violent. These inner city schools also achieve greater graduation rates as they become smaller, even when factors such as higher rates of learning disabilities are factored in.

In many areas this has led to efforts to replace the larger schools with smaller more effective ones. The Urban Academy in New York City sends over 90% of its students on to college, despite drawing students from one of the most impoverished areas of the city. Urban Academy has 120 students and has been designated a National Showcase site and has won several awards for excellence. Even so, state officials proposed consolidating the school in the name of cost savings. Then, New York University researchers  showed that when all costs are figured in, the smaller schools actually cost less to produce a graduate than the larger schools do. Of course the larger schools do produce many more dropouts, so it depends on what your goal is.

The state of Illinois should at least do a complete study of the consequences and true costs of consolidation before jumping on the “one size fits all” bandwagon that has ill-served so many students.