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Too Many Districts

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A compromise was eventually reached on the issue. But many believe that the debate it sparked in Oklahoma 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--a process that has reduced the number of school districts from more than 100,000 to fewer than 15,000 in the past 40 years.

In Texas, for example, a form of consolidation has been put forward in response to the state supreme court's decision overturning the schoolfinance 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,'' says Michigan State Senator John Schwarz, 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. Texas State Representative Ernestine Glossbrenner, for example, sees school consolidation as one of those subjects--like death and taxes-- that is too unpleasant for lawmakers to talk about. "Some legislators think that if taxes and consolidation both happen, death will surely follow,'' says 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,'' argues Ron McMichael of the Texas Association of School Administrators. "We're not necessarily opposed to consolidation,'' he adds. "We're opposed to forced consolidation.''

In Texas, where the Legislature has until May to revamp the schoolfinance system, Gov. William Clements Jr. has formed a task force to study alternatives. The group will discuss some form of consolidation, says Glossbrenner.

Two Texas 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, 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, Glossbrenner says.

In Michigan, a bill consolidating the state's 560-plus districts has a slim chance of passage in its present form, its co-sponsor concedes. But Schwarz says 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 asks. "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,'' Schwarz says. "But the concept is not arbitrary.''

Lobbyists say there is support for the concept of consolidation in Michigan, if not for the proposed legislation. The Michigan Education Association opposes the bill. But its chief lobbyist, Al Short, says that 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 says. "You can't make a decision in Lansing and send it down.''

The debate in Oklahoma earlier this year centered on the relationship between consolidation and student performance. A statewide task force on education, which issued its report last November, had urged that consolidation efforts be focused on districts unable to meet accreditation standards. "We do not believe that forced consolidation in any category will automatically guarantee better educational results,'' the report stated.

Reform legislation based on the report passed the House within a few weeks but got bogged down in the Senate, in large part because of disagreements over consolidation.

The initial Senate bill linked consolidation to school accreditation and allowed for a grace period of several years. But under pressure from some Republicans, the bill that finally passed stipulated that all schools not currently meeting accreditation requirements for a full K-12 program must begin consolidation next year.

Senator Jerry Smith defended the GOP-sponsored change 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.'' Consolidation, he predicted, would simplify administration and improve education.

A joint legislative committee was able to reconcile differences in the House and Senate bills. The compromise offers financial incentives to districts that voluntarily consolidate while the money lasts. Then, districts that have not consolidated and cannot meet state accreditation standards will be merged by the state.

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

Schwarz of Michigan, 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 Myers, education-program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, observes 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 adds.

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,'' argues James Gordon Ward, an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Illinois. Consolidation, he says, "may simply be the most viable way to achieve a quality education [for rural students].''

--Michael Newman, Education Week

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