Researchers Find School District Consolidation Proposals Likely to Yield Minimal Savings, Jeopardize Academic Achievement

Posted on January 12, 2004 | Type: Press Release
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PHOENIX- In a new study released today, Goldwater Institute education researchers Vicki Murray and Ross Groen examine proposals to consolidate Arizona's school districts, finding that consolidation is unlikely to lead to savings and may actually hurt academic performance. "Reducing administrative waste is a laudable goal," Dr. Murray says, "But school district consolidation may sacrifice academic achievement and local control for minimal savings, if any savings in fact materialize."

In an effort to reduce administrative waste, some civic leaders have proposed reducing the number of school districts from over 200 to fewer than 40, with some plans mandating districts of up to 30,000 students. But after examining data from the Office of the Auditor General, Murray and Groen find that the likely fiscal savings from those plans would be between $17 and $35 dollars per student, or less than one percent of yearly per-pupil expenditures. And even those savings are unlikely to materialize, Murray says, because the plans are founded on unrealistic assumptions about the growth of administrative costs.

Murray and Groen also analyze data from 209 Arizona school districts, finding that smaller districts and medium districts perform as well or better than the state's 10 largest districts when it comes to controlling administrative costs. In general, they find that school district size in Arizona is a poor predictor of administrative costs. And a review of nationwide literature indicates that smaller, decentralized school districts have superior student achievement and efficiency.

To reduce administrative waste, Murray and Groen recommend expanding charter schools and fully exercising the state's open enrollment law. Charter schools generally have little off-site administration, and receive about $1,500 less per pupil than traditional public schools. According to Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby, Arizona charter schools have improved the test scores of their own students, as well as the test scores of students in surrounding traditional public schools, by 1 to 3 percentage points. Hoxby has also estimated that full use of open enrollment could raise public school efficiency by 10 percent, boost student achievement by 3 to 6 percentile points, and reduce spending by almost 8 percent.

The study, Competition or Consolidation? The School District Consolidation Debate Revisited, is available here.

Author Contact: Vicki Murray, Ph.D., Education Policy Analyst, Goldwater Institute, (602) 462-5000 x 229

Press Contact: Tom Jenney, Director of Communications, Goldwater Institute,(602) 712-1257

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