A series of bills promoting school district consolidation are making their way through the Illinois state legislature. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) supports the idea, which would cut the number of school districts in the state from almost 900 to around 300. This proposal is not the first challenge to the status quo, nor will it be the last. State and local budgets are unlikely to increase for years to come and districts and schools around the country will continue to seek ways to do more with less. Clearly now is the time to explore the questions of structure and governance that these proposals raise.
District consolidation is often proposed in the name of efficiency and cost savings—bigger districts mean fewer administrative positions are needed, and larger groupings of schools can achieve economies of scale in purchasing and other services. Gov. Quinn originally argued that consolidating Illinois districts would save taxpayers $100 million. In addition, proponents of consolidation argue that small districts cannot provide the breadth and depth of course offerings and other extracurricular opportunities for students that are available in larger districts.
On the other side, opponents of consolidation fear that it takes away the local control that has traditionally characterized schooling in the United States. Consolidation opponents also cite research suggesting that students perform better in small settings.
As if the Illinois consolidation issue wasn’t politically contentious enough to begin with, it turns out that the financial implications are far from straightforward. Illinois provides incentives for districts to consolidate in the form of equalizing teacher-salary scales across elementary and high school districts and flat payments for each affected staff member. So what was once advertised as a cost-savings measure could in fact cost the state $3.7 billion in the short term.
The Illinois consolidation plan is just one example of the governance challenges that plague our public education system. Who makes which decisions about schooling—and how those decisions are made—is shaped at multiple levels of the system: some by the federal government, some by the state, some by the district, and some by teachers and school leaders.
While governance may not be the trendiest topic in today’s policy circles, we believe it should be a critical piece of the reform agenda. That’s why the Center for American Progress and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute are together embarking on a new three-year project to place the issue of education governance squarely before the nation and help policymakers and the public understand how today’s dysfunctional arrangements impede almost all significant efforts for school reform.
At CAP we do not agree with Fordham on many issues—and we will not always agree in this governance sphere—but we do think this issue needs more attention. Through a series of research studies, policy briefs, op-eds, events, and other activities, we plan to examine the limitations of current school-governance arrangements and explore how alternatives might be applied in schools today. We think governance can and should be one of the next big issues in education reform—one that draws attention across the ideological spectrum.
School reforms are everywhere, yet we have failed to make the dramatic improvements needed to effectively prepare all students for success in college and careers. The slow pace of change suggests that we should take a fresh look at public education’s basic structures, since even the most innovative reforms will fail to gain traction if they are situated in dysfunctional institutions that are unable to implement and sustain the very ideas that could potentially make a difference. We must gain a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of existing structures, governance arrangements, and power relationships.
Doing so will require us to reexamine some deep-seated assumptions about how public education should be governed and controlled in this country. It may be the case, for example, that our traditional faith in local control by elected municipal school boards cannot cope with today’s changing demographics, new opportunities for digital learning, intense fiscal pressures, or urbanization. We may also need to rethink how we fund our schools since traditional school-funding schemes based on dramatically varying property values and income levels yield results that are neither equitable nor efficient.
Although many consider school governance to be either boring or untouchable, some localized efforts that begin to address our outdated governance structures are underway. Mayors in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have taken control of their cities’ school systems, and governors in Washington state and California seek greater control of their state systems. Charter schools are demonstrating new forms of local control, through both independent charter schools and charter-management organizations. And virtual schools present still more alternative governance arrangements.
We invite you to join us as we seek ways to make public education work better and respond more effectively to the needs of parents and children.
Diana Epstein is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.