March 18, 2012

School budgets resist reform

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.

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