Reform Is the Silver Lining of School Consolidation

January 7, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for release Jan. 9 and thereafter (711 words)

by Dr. JEFF ABBOTT

The sun had not set the day that the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform issued its report “Streamlining Local Government” before the education special-interest groups voiced their disapproval.The report’s co-chairmen, former Indiana Gov. Joseph Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, observed that: “Indiana is a place where the taxpayers support lots and lots of governments . . . All of this is more expensive than it needs to be.” They conclude their letter by pointing out the choice Hoosiers have before them: " The status quo in local government is simply not good enough. Indiana can either embolden itself, designing new arrangements for its future prosperity, or continue to trudge along under a system of government erected 150 years ago.”

Now, when innovative leadership is sorely needed, is the time to give serious consideration to elements of their report in danger of beng overlooked, especially those elements that would put more resources in the classroom.

The report recommends reorganizing school districts to achieve a minimum student population of 2,000 students and implement a county-based school consolidation planning process similar to that established in 1959 legislation. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to examine the issue of consolidation at least every 50 years or so. If past history is any indication, this will be a hot and emotional political issue for many Indiana citizens. Fifty years ago many communities became embroiled in tumultuous conflict over the contentious school consolidation issue.

We can expect that school administrator and school-board interest groups will lament the loss of “local control” if they are forced to consolidate. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they are wrong. They have already begun speaking about the benefits of small school districts. Talking points have been developed. The political spin has begun.

What is important for Indiana citizens to do is to separate the rhetoric from the facts. This will require considerable research and analysis of data by researchers who do not have a vested interest in the school-consolidation issue. Research results should be transparent to the public. Indiana citizens should ask the protesting interest groups why they have not researched and analyzed the data before they began, within hours if issuance of the report, their negative public reaction to the report. The answer can be found by examining the self-interests of those who have so quickly organized to oppose the report. The various self-interests are simple to describe. For school superintendents, it is jobs that usually pay $100,000 or more. For school board members, it is an opportunity to exercise their individual power and control over local schools and their staffs, and to be a big shot politician in the local community.

Citizens would be well served to examine whether these interests are adult interests or student interests. The opponents of the report will wrap themselves with the cloak of “its good for kids.” But do small school districts benefit children — or do they benefit adults more? Is the size of the school district important, or is the size of the school more important? The research on school and school district size needs to be examined before these questions can be answered honestly.

Indiana citizens and their legislators have three options:

* Reject the report and do nothing.
* Accept the report and consolidate small school districts into 2,000 student districts.
* Examine the delivery system of K-12 education and seek new innovative and creative methods of school organization and governance.

It would be shortsighted to only view the consolidation issue as a two-dimensional question. To only consider rejecting or approving the report is imprudent. That third dimension must be fully examined.

An opportunity exists to study and determine whether the effectiveness of government schools can be improved. The bottom line is that any change must improve academic achievement while reducing the costs to Indiana taxpayers.

Obviously, this is not an easy task. It will require a critical review of how Indiana’s government schools are organized and how they operate. It may even require significant change in the design of Indiana’s entire state-organized public school system and its funding formula. It certainly will require vision and courage by the Indiana General Assembly and the governor.

Jeff Abbott, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and an attorney, is a former Indiana public-school superintendent. Contact him at jabbott@inpolicy.org.



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