Consolidation: The costly fiction
Policymakers are declaring it a “bad year” for Vermont school budgets. That’s because 35 were voted down. The fact that voters approved 217 budgets doesn’t seem to matter as much.
Almost all those defeated budgets included just a modest increase or even a decline in actual spending. This means local school boards are doing their job. However, because of varying declines in pupil numbers, some districts’ per pupil costs arithmetically increased. Per pupil costs are misleading since losing a couple of fifth-graders doesn’t make running your fifth-grade class less expensive, but because the state’s funding formula rests heavily on per pupil costs, state funding to those districts decreased. In short, even where actual school costs went down, school taxes often went up.
Since taxes probably shouldn’t increase when school costs decrease, officials plan to revise the formula. They also say schools should cut expenses.
Most teachers could provide a list of unproductive programs and consultants, and redundant, untested assessments by which their schools waste money. These expenditures are commonly tied to state and federal mandates and that miraculous funding source called “grants,” which we like to pretend don’t cost anything, even though they come out of the same wallets that pay school taxes.
Policymakers rarely question these questionable expenses. Many instead argue that small school districts duplicate administrative services, and that we could reduce those costs by consolidating districts under fewer superintendents.
Lurking behind administrative restructuring is the reality that consolidation means not only the elimination of some local administrators, but also the elimination of many local schools. In towns with one school, this means losing your town school altogether.
Despite claims that consolidating districts would save money, that’s not how things usually work out. My reading suggests that consolidation eventually costs more, not less, but the best that proponents can reasonably argue is that it’s fiscally neutral. For every economy of scale in hiring or purchasing, there are at least as many inefficiencies that come with greater distance from the classrooms and schools where actual education is delivered. As for reducing administrators, the first thing most superintendents in larger districts do is hire assistant superintendents.
Proponents also argue that consolidation would somehow better provide “education for the 21st century,” a tagline policymakers have been tacking on to justify dubious ideas since the 1980s. This false assertion is more insidious and dangerous. Its advocates tout the alleged benefits when schools adopt a “shared vision.” They claim that consolidating power into larger districts they often hope to lead is “for the kids.”
In practice “shared vision” means whatever theory happens to be the current educational flavor of the month. It’s commonly shared by cramming it down the throats of local teachers, parents and taxpayers. Policymakers rail against “one size fits all” education, but that’s precisely what results from consolidated supervisory directives. As for the “kids,” you can’t know what’s good for students unless you work with them. The problem with public education is that too many decisions are already made by people too far from and ignorant of what happens in a classroom. Consolidation would only exacerbate this pernicious flaw in the way we govern schools.
Critics complain that governance by local boards is messy and inefficient, and sometimes it is. But Winston Churchill was right. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Each of us has little direct influence on our national leaders, but we accept that limitation because the federal government, while distant, is best suited to deal with issues like defense and foreign policy. At the State House we have a slightly enhanced opportunity to affect decisions. But our most direct control over public policy exists in our towns and cities.
Nothing belongs closer to home than control of our public schools. Exporting power over our schools to some governing body across the county or state will weaken our communities and deny parents a meaningful voice in their children’s education.
Proponents claim that maintaining community schools is an outmoded, romanticized custom we can no longer afford. The truth is theirs is the costly fiction that ignores economic and education realities.
Make no mistake. Consolidating school districts won’t save money. What it will do is further weaken schools by removing control of public education even farther from the classrooms where education happens.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School.