Academic journal article Education

A Decade of Results: A Case for School District Consolidation?

Academic journal article Education

A Decade of Results: A Case for School District Consolidation?

Article excerpt

School district consolidation persists as a controversial issue in public education. Often touted as a method of improving school efficiency, consolidation remains a frequent recommendation of state governments seeking to improve educational cost effectiveness, particularly in rural school districts (Andrews, Duncombe & Yinger, 2002). Although debate concerning consolidation of schools and districts exists since the beginning of education in America, there is little evidence that the practice improves efficiency or academic achievement. Moreover, the literature about consolidation is limited predominantly to studies of rural and small schools/districts; research regarding larger, urban schools/systems is remarkably negligible.

Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the idea that bigger results in lower costs fueled the consolidation effort. Coupled with industrialization and urbanization, school consolidation typically targeted rural areas and reduced the number of school districts in the United States. In fact, "over 100,000 school districts have been eliminated through consolidation since 1938, a drop of almost 90 percent" (Duncombe & Yinger, 2002, p.l). Additionally, consolidation furthered efforts to dismantle segregated districts. As an example, in North Carolina, the Charlotte and Mecklenburg County districts consolidated in 1960 into one system consisting of the urban hub and the adjacent suburbs (Orfield & Eaton, 1996).

By definition, consolidation eliminates one or more schools or districts and creates one distinct, larger school system. The procedure entails either a complete dissolution or reorganization of schools/districts and, depending upon the circumstances, may be referred to as a merger. Most often rooted in the economy of scale principle whereby "one reduces production cost by increasing the size of the operation" (Self, 200 l, p. 4), consolidation is thought to bring about more efficient use of tax dollars and expanded educational opportunity.

Proponents of consolidation espouse a variety of arguments in furtherance of the initiative. Pursuant to the economy of scale belief, larger districts afford a more proficient relationship between per-pupil expenditure and enrollment, resulting in increased comprehensive curriculum and more diversified, specialized programs and services. Further, a larger student population allows for additional support staff, such as counselors and reading specialists. The economic rationale, moreover, advances the notion that consolidation enhances cost-effectiveness, in part, through bulk purchasing, better building utilization with the closing of older and costly facilities, and the need for fewer administrators. Finally, teachers gain from increased salaries and benefits by working in a better-funded district with the prospect of extra professional development (LaPlante, 2005).

The idea of consolidation, however, is not without its opponents; it is often met with anxiety and hostility from students and the communities affected. Since consolidation normally means closing some schools, an action perceived as damaging to the community, the recommendation can prove to be a serious and emotional matter. The issue confronts the most resistance in small, rural areas where a community's identity is linked with the local school. Additionally, large districts produce certain diseconomies including "impersonal atmosphere; lower participation rates in school events; less positive attitudes toward school; less attention to individual students; less parental involvement; longer times spent in transportation to and from school; loss of community identity with small schools; and higher dropout rates" (Young, 1994, p. 34).

Despite the negatives associated with consolidation, many states continue legislative efforts and incentives to encourage consolidation. Since 2001, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Virginia have all passed statutes or regulations addressing consolidation (Russo, 2006). …

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