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School Consolidation Garnering Legislators' Attention

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As they returned last week to continue work on a major education-reform bill, Oklahoma lawmakers were deadlocked over a politically explosive issue that is beginning to force its way to the top of other states' legislative agendas as well--the consolidation of school districts.

Improving education in the Sooner State, says a group of Senate Republicans, requires a substantial reduction in the number of districts, which currently stands at more than 600.

Whatever the outcome in Oklahoma, the debate there could be a harbinger of controversies to come in other states. Faced with seemingly intractable problems of school finance and equity, a small but growing number of state officials argue that it is time to crank up yet another round in the decades-long process of combining school systems in rural areas.

In Texas, for example, a form of consolidation has been put forward in response to the state supreme court's decision overturning the school-finance system.

And in Michigan--where legislators have struggled for years to reach an agreement on funding issues--a drastic consolidation measure in the Senate is generating further controversy.

But if the motive force behind the latest movement for consolidation is the need to save money--a goal that critics say the tactic is unlikely to achieve--the rhetoric on its behalf is in terms of improving schools.

"I don't think [consolidation] is a solution to our finance problems," said Senator John J.H. Schwarz of Michigan, chairman of the education committee and a co-sponsor of the current proposal. "My goal is to provide a quality education for every student."

Even so, consolidation efforts are likely to encounter formidable opposition. Representative Ernestine V. Glossbrenner of Texas, for example, sees school consolidation as one of those subjects--like death and taxes--that are simply too unpleasant for state lawmakers to talk about.

"Some legislators think that if taxes and consolidation both happen, death will surely follow," said Ms. Glossbrenner, chairman of the House Committee on Public Education. "I don't necessarily think so."

Resistance to consolidation springs not only from doubts about its efficacy but also from deeply held feelings about local communities' identity and self-government.

"Politicians shouldn't be making a decision for local districts," argued Ron L. McMichael of the Texas Association of School Administrators. "We're not necessarily opposed to consolidation," he added. "We're opposed to forced consolidation."
In Texas, where the legislature has until May to revamp the school-finance system, Gov. William P. Clements Jr. has formed a task force to study alternatives. The group will discuss some form of consolidation, Ms. Glossbrenner said.

In the legislature, two lawmakers have developed a modified consolidation proposal aimed at lessening the wide disparities in spending among the state's 1,068 districts.

Under the plan, introduced by Senator Hector Uribe and Representative Gregory Luna, the state would consolidate districts for tax purposes only. Each of the 254 counties would levy a uniform tax, which the state would then supplement through an equalization formula. The money would be redistributed to the districts within the county on a per-student basis.

The plan, which has the support of the legal association that represented the plaintiffs in the school-finance case, "has a good chance" in the legislature, according to Ms. Glossbrenner.

In Michigan, a bill consolidating the state's 560-plus districts has a slim chance of passage in its present form, its co-sponsor conceded.

But Mr. Schwarz said his intent is to raise the issue of consolidation for discussion. "Is it needed? Does it work? Should we combine it with finance reform?" he asked. "We're just putting these issues on the table."

In its current form, the bill calls for a nine-member commission to draft a plan to reduce the number of districts to no more than 250, with all districts including grades K-12 and enrolling at least 2,000 students.

"Those numbers are arbitrary," Mr. Schwarz said. "But the concept is not arbitrary."

Lobbyists said there is support for the concept of consolidation in Michigan, if not for the current legislation.

The Michigan Education Association opposes the bill. But its chief lobbyist, Allan J. Short, said his union's quarrel is not with consolidation itself but with who would have the power to order it.

"We have no problem with consolidation--but you have to allow the local citizens to vote on the issue," he said. "You can't make a decision in Lansing and send it down."

Debate in Oklahoma has centered around the relationship between consolidation and student performance.

A statewide task force on education, which issued its report in November, urged that consolidation efforts be focused on districts unable to meet accreditation standards. "We do not believe," the report states, "that forced consolidation in any category will automatically guarantee better educational results."

Legislation based on the report passed the House within a few weeks, but has since gotten bogged down in the Senate, in large part because of disagreements over consolidation.

As the commission had recommended, the current Senate bill requires districts to consolidate if they do not meet certain standards. It also allows districts a several-year grace period to meet those standards.

Some Republicans, however, want to require all districts that do not have full K-12 programs to consolidate, beginning next year.

George Singer, the Tulsa oilman who chaired the commission, said the Senate Republicans' consolidation formula is "arbitrary."

"They don't even remotely argue that their formula is going to improve education," he argued. "If all districts are performing well, and none of them are being heavily subsidized, why should anyone care?"

But Senator Jerry L. Smith defended the gop proposal on the grounds that there are simply too many districts in the state.

"The fact is, we have over 600 districts, one of which has only 17 students," he said. Consolidation would simplify administration and improve effectiveness, he predicted.

While some observers see in these three states the beginnings of a trend toward consolidation, others say it remains too sensitive an issue for many state legislators.

Mr. Schwarz, for instance, will not even use the term. "I hate to use that word," he said. "It conjures up images of school closings and long bus rides. I'd rather use 'reorganization."'

John L. Myers, education-program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, observed that consolidation "is not the kind of trend it was in the 1960's."

"I'd be very surprised if it is looked upon as offering significant savings," he added.

But others see consolidation as an idea whose time has come--or, at least, whose time may be coming.

"Rural schools are getting smaller and poorer," argued James Gordon Ward, an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Illinois. Consolidation "may simply be the most viable way to achieve a quality education" for rural students, he said.

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