With almost every edition of the Press-Republican, we see another story of a local school district under budgetary pressure. It is worth pondering why New York State has the highest education costs per student in the nation.
One reason may be that we have a penchant for small towns, municipalities and school districts. In Clinton County, we have eight school districts serving a little more than 12,000 students. This works out to about 1,500 students, on average, for entire school districts, which is smaller than the high school I attended.
In 2000, the majority of our nation's public-education students were educated in districts larger than 10,000 students, and about a third of students were in districts of more than 25,000.
Since then, there has been further consolidation. The median public-education student in this country learns in a district of about the same size as the eight districts in Clinton County combined.
We should be careful to discern between larger districts and larger schools. There is evidence that students do better in smaller schools than in the large mega-schools of many urban areas. However, there is also research that shows students perform better in larger school districts.
This seeming contradiction is because larger districts afford greater opportunities for specialized expertise. They also have greater economies of scale in technical assistance to teachers and students, and are hence more effective learning organizations that are able to muster more managerial talent and pool resources more effectively than small districts.
I see one additional artifact of larger school districts that lies on the other side of the autonomy issue. It is well known that we may find fault in our nation's Congress, but we like our own representative. This seemingly universal conclusion is because our representative is not like the other ones. We have no influence with other leaders, but we feel we have the ear of our own representative. That is one important factor in the plus column that biases our regards.
The same effect occurs with our school districts. We may all agree that other districts, municipalities, towns and cities ought to be consolidated to enhance educational opportunities, reduce superintendent salaries and lower costs. Yet, we don't want to sacrifice autonomy in our own district.
Instead, we feel we have greater influence over a smaller district. On the other hand, the taxpayer who foots the bill is really in the same position anywhere. As a consequence, local advocates seem to hold greater sway when districts are small.
And, with fewer taxpayers in a small district, our most vocal advocates for greater school spending feel they have more influence on their neighbors and parents who can be convinced to support spending for their children.
We all should have an interest in the quality of education. That does not mean we should invest an inordinate amount. We should invest the correct amount and expect good value.
Our support of education ought not depend on whether we have children or earn a living as an educator. Such are special interests and ought not go into the calculation.
Yet, it is often parents of school-aged children and educators who are the most vocal and influential taxpayers. They attend the meetings and tend to drown out the softer din of others concerned about education in general.
It is these special interests that prevent consolidation or stymie reform. Every special interest is reluctant to change because it threatens the prevailing power base.
As an educator myself, I often lament that we conduct education in almost the same way we have for millennia. Our subject matter has changed, classes are sometimes smaller, and sometimes much bigger, and we use whiteboards instead of blackboards.
As we face difficult budgetary realities, let's be sure this is not about parents, districts and administrators. Instead, let us rethink how to create the best-value education in the country. Permit us to use every tool in our box so we can be sure our students today offer us the best opportunity for a sustainable future, just as our hard work today pays for their education and sustains us all now.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His 10th book, Great Minds in Finance — the Efficiency Hypothesists, is coming out this fall. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.