Advocates for school district consolidation are gearing up to press their issue in the next legislative session. But theres a bigger, better question: Do we still need school districts at all?
The consolidation issue is a perennial. It makes intuitive sense that we have too many school districts, with more than 200 in the state, 54 in Maricopa County alone. Many believe economies of scale could be realized and administrative costs reduced with fewer school districts.
But there is scant evidence that larger school districts are more efficient or that larger size promotes academic achievement. School size is far more important than districts size and the evidence strongly suggests we are building schools that are too large. There are some good arguments for joining elementary and high school districts where they are separate, as in the case of Phoenix Union and its feeder districts. But making small districts into large ones shouldnt be confused with education reform.
What is the point of school districts? The first districts were created by their communities to build and operate the common schools. Today districts are authorized by the state. Along with the state and federal governments, districts form the education bureaucracy which writes and administers the copious set of rules under which local schools operate.
Until recently, districts had rigidly enforced geographic boundaries. They were granted a monopoly right to provide government-funded education services within their boundaries. All students attending public schools were required to attend the school provided them by the district. Today, with open enrollment, the operating environment is dramatically changed. Districts openly compete with each other and with charter schools for students. Administrators are evaluated on their ability to attract and retain students. In this competitive environment, districts are no longer necessary to ensure that all students have access to a public school.
Some may argue that districts are necessary to build new schools in growth areas. But in 1998, the state took over responsibility for building and maintaining all needed schools under the court mandated Students First program. Districts are authorized to bond for upgrades. Even under this system, wealthier districts have passed so many bond measures that there once again is a high degree of inequality in capital funding among districts. Yet another system reform may soon be mandated. A capital funding model which excludes districts may actually provide needed stability and clarity.
Why propose something so unpopular with the status quo? Because public schools would benefit academically without this layer of bureaucracy. John Chubb and Terry Moe over a decade ago in their seminal book Politics, Markets and American Schools pointed out that school autonomy and strong leadership at the school level were the most predictive factors for effective schools. Researchers across the spectrum have corroborated their findings.
Superior schools are not the product of especially thorough, creative bureaucracies. Rather, high functioning schools are operationally independent with capable school leaders empowered to make critical personnel and curriculum decisions. If districts serve schools the best when they do the least, at some point it is legitimate to question if they are truly needed.
Absent school districts, we would virtually be forced into the most fair and accountable funding system possible: All funding, including capital and special-needs dollars, would follow the student to whatever school they attend. Our current mishmash of program funding, entitlements, debt financing and per pupil allotments is dysfunctional and ripe for replacement.
Still doubt we could get along without school districts? Charter schools are overrepresented among the top public schools in the state and theyre not members of any district. Some charters create branch campuses or form voluntary associations for purposes of branding and purchasing. Theyre not funded as well as district schools, but none are clamoring to join a district.
Many local districts this year lacked enough candidates to fill open board positions. Deadlines were extended but a few districts still had vacancies for these elected offices. Maybe its time to recognize that districts once played an important role but their time has passed.
Is radical system overhaul truly impossible? You never know. Not long ago, school choice itself seemed unfamiliar and a little crazy.
Maybe its time to think the unthinkable. Free the schools!