End and Means: School District Consolidation Plan Isn't as Simple as it May Seem

Apr 1, 2011

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Mention hot-button issues in Illinois politics, and what comes to mind? Abortion? Gun control? Tax hikes? All contentious issues, to be sure, but the most explosive fireworks this spring could come from Gov. Pat Quinn’s push to cut by almost two-thirds the number of school districts in the state.

“Illinois currently has 868 school districts, and our fiscal reality demands consolidation,” the governor said in his budget address. “I am proposing the formation of a commission that will review the number of school districts in our state. Consolidation lowers administrative overhead, improves efficiency and will save taxpayers $100 million.”

Only California and Texas have more school districts than Illinois, and more than 200 of the districts here have just a single school. Though few details were available immediately, Quinn aides said the governor’s plan envisions the commission drawing boundaries, likely based on population, for roughly 300 school districts after hearings and study. But the commission’s handiwork would not require local voter approval in the affected areas; instead, the new maps would be imposed in time to elect members to the newly crafted school boards in spring 2013, so students could start school in the new districts in the fall.

The governor’s plan quickly triggered a negative barrage from the education community, but Quinn stuck to his guns. “We don’t need as many folks at the top level,” Quinn told reporters. “We need folks on the front line, in teaching, imparting knowledge and making sure our kids get 21st-century education.”

The governor added that at least 270 school superintendents earn more than his $177,412 salary. “I’m not sure we need so many of them,” he said.

Quinn’s shot at high-paid school administrators was reminiscent of his successful campaign some three decades ago to cut the size of the Illinois House by one-third in the wake of an extremely unpopular pay raise that lawmakers approved in the waning hours of the 1979 fall session.

While voters in 1980 jumped at the chance to eliminate 59 politicians, citizens are much less enthusiastic about shuttering local schools, even less so when the death knell comes from Springfield. Just ask former Gov. Jim Thompson.

As part of a wide-sweeping education reform package Thompson signed in July 1985, local committees were formed across the state to recommend school consolidations based on minimum enrollment figures, with the reorganization plans submitted to voter referendum two years later.

At first, the package’s telephone and cigarette tax increases and its changes in teacher credentialing and evaluations drew the most attention. As public awareness grew about the consolidation provisions, though, the resulting firestorm was so fierce that lawmakers and Thompson repealed the consolidation provisions the following March.

Now, much as their predecessors helped fashion the 1985 proposal, state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch and Education Board chairman Jesse Ruiz are backing Quinn’s initiative, which they say is a way to reduce administrative overlap and shift additional resources to the classroom.

The prospect of saving big bucks by downsizing administration is certainly appealing, especially when the state and most school districts are struggling financially, but the rewards may not be as great as advertised, either fiscally or educationally.

In a recent report published by the National Education Policy Center, researchers from Ohio University studied consolidation over the past 25 years and concluded that policymakers should be skeptical of its professed benefits. 

“Research on the effects of contemporary consolidation suggests that new consolidation is likely to result in neither greater efficiency nor better instructional outcomes — especially when it results from state policy that implements large-scale forced consolidation,” noted the researchers, who are educational administration professors at the Ohio school.

Larger school districts frequently require additional mid-level administrators, higher teacher salaries and greater transportation costs, all of which offset savings from fewer superintendents, the researchers found.

Nor do larger schools and districts mean better student performance, according to a 2009 report by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University.

“Research indicates that student achievement in smaller schools is equal or better to that of students in large schools,” the ISU report noted, and “small schools are equal or superior to large schools in their ability to prepare students for college admission and completion.”

Moreover, students in smaller schools show lower rates of negative social behavior and have lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates than their counterparts in large schools, the ISU study found.

The Ohio University researchers noted other possible drawbacks as districts grow bigger. “Larger school and district sizes can lead to lower student participation rates in extracurricular activities, less parental involvement in school affairs, more dangerous school environments and larger achievement gaps for low-income and minority students,” they said.

Their conclusion? “Overall, state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes,” they wrote.

Rather than impose new district boundaries on unwilling local communities, the better approach for Quinn and lawmakers would be to continue to encourage likely candidates for consolidation to explore their options, weighing all the factors and working all the details, before local voters have the final say. To sweeten the deal, the state already offers a number of financial incentives to interested districts, ranging from funds to pay for technical expertise and feasibility studies at the outset, to supplemental state aid payments, funds to cover any salary differential among merging districts and a $4,000-per-teacher bonus once the merger is approved. Sixteen reorganized districts are sharing some $3.2 million this year, and Quinn’s proposed budget includes $4.6 million for fiscal year 2012.

Granted, the current voluntary process is slow — just 57 districts were crunched into 35 through consolidation or annexation in the last decade — but it respects Illinois’ longstanding commitment to local control of its schools.

One would imagine Pat Quinn, of all people, would understand that.

The governor’s plan quickly triggered a negative barrage from the education community.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, April 2011