Go Slow on School and District Consolidation, Report Says

By Sean Cavanagh — February 04, 2011 1 min read
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As states seek to pare down spending, a new report warns elected officials against rushing into one popular strategy for cutting costs: school and district consolidation.

The report, based on review of available research, argues that claims about potential financial savings through consolidation are often exaggerated and misunderstood.

The review, conducted by researchers at Ohio University, concludes that savings to states from consolidating districts are often minimal, and mostly come about in districts serving a small number of students. In many instances, in fact, combining districts can create “diseconomies of scale” and result in increased costs in transportation, operations, management, security, and other areas, says the report, which was released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Overall, the effects of merging districts and schools are “nuanced, indicating that efficiencies can be achieved in some expenditure areas and for certain types of schools or districts,” the authors say, while also suggesting “caution for policymakers pursuing consolidation in the hope of cutting costs.”

The authors’ review also calls into question the claim that consolidation produces greater academic opportunities for students, in the form of academic course offerings. In some cases, it also results in reduced student participation in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, they say.

States tend to look to consoliation during times of financial duress, like now. A major wave of consolidation played out from the 1930s to the 1970s. Unlike consolidations that have occurred more recently, that mid-century consolidation wave by and large brought many benefits, in the form of greater specialization in subject-matter teaching, more effective school leadership, and other advantages, the authors contend.

What caused the 1930s-1970s consolidation wave? One factor was the automobile. Students who previously were forced to stay close to home, the authors say, were able to cover ever-greater distances in cars and buses on an improved network of roads.

If you’re in a state that has merged schools or districts to save money or for academic reasons, what do you make of the report’s caution-on-consolidation message?

Photo: A Model T, shown in 1938, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.