I decided to copy my last paragraph and put it at the front of this piece and follow it with a sort of flash back, essay style. By the way, the last question is the most important.
The exciting conclusion
No matter how you consider it, consolidating has zero impact on the per-student funding from the State of Oklahoma. Zero. Yet this issue is raised as a smoke screen every time funding is discussed. The rest of this piece is intentionally explained in a factual rational manner. However, this issue is one of he things that angers me about the situation of education funding in Oklahoma. It angers me that some members of my own political party keep repeating the consolidation lie when they know it is a lie. (In fairness, it is not ALL members of my party. And I do notice.) It angers me to know that Republican-led states all over the nation fund schools better than we do here. It is fine to talk about efficient government and responsible use of taxpayer money. It is wrong, deceptive and downright slimy politics to use this issue to deny proper funding for education in Oklahoma. This is why people must get out and vote to change things here.
And on to the essay…
The reason Oklahoma has so many school districts is rooted in state history. Oklahoma was sparsely populated with few roads at statehood. It was not practical in 1907 to transport school children long distances. In some parts of Oklahoma it is still not practical. According to information in the Oklahoma State University Historical Archive, Oklahoma had several thousand little school districts shortly after statehood. There were far fewer in the Indian Territory portion of the state. Consolidation of these districts became an immediate issue and remains an issue to this day. Since then the number of districts has gradually been declining and will continue to decline. There were two districts closed by the state department of education after the 2015-2016 school year. Others consolidate by vote.
Here are the issues that have been raised or ignored.
Would fewer school systems be more financially efficient? The jury is out on this. Most small school parents are happy with the school they get for the money they have. In Texas they have allowed schools to consolidate purchasing through a central agency and this could save money for schools of all sizes no matter how many districts we have. But this is not on the table here in Oklahoma leading one to believe that the “efficiency” issue is not really what drive the discussion.
What size is most efficient? This question is ignored because it does not fit anyone’s agenda. It might make sense to bust up larger districts. No one in Oklahoma or Tulsa County things a county-wide school district is a good idea, politically speaking. It is likely not a good idea from a financial standpoint either. Larger is not always more efficient in business or in government. There does not seem to be a body of research that addresses this question. Bill Gates’ small school initiative was considered a failure because it was based on a misunderstanding of statistics.
What size is best for student achievement? Because small schools have fewer students, their test scores vary more from district to district and from year to year. This because of the law of small numbers. (For a bookish definition click here. If you want more depth, check here. And if you want to know a whole lot about the perils of statistics read Daniel Kahneman’s awesome book: Thinking Fast and Slow.) Also because of this, the average scores of small districts vary far more than the scores of larger districts. As long as there are some districts that are highly rated it is hard to justify consolidating these districts for academic reasons. For instance, the Great Schools website ranks the Jenks Public Schools as a 6 out of 10. The Tushka School District, in Atoka County is rated an 8 out of 10. These are both fine schools and a comparison on this one number for academic achievement is not statistically useful.
Who makes the decision to consolidate? Generally it is the local citizens. But sometimes districts have been forced to close when they are too small to function at all or when their is severe financial mismanagement. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the “financial mismanagement” closure happened this year in Oklahoma. We will have fewer districts next year. (2016-17 as this is written.)
Does it save the state money? No. This is why this issue is so irritating. Schools receive most of their funding through a formula based mostly on the number of students they have and on their local funding. There are a few schools in Oklahoma that have funding that is high enough that they get no state aid through the formula. (The cut off is, as I recall, is local funding that is 300% higher than the maximum state aid. Correct me if I am wrong.) Others only get a percentage of state aid. Consolidating schools will not change the number of students, local funding levels, or how much money is spent on state aid. No matter what consolidation does it will not improve school funding in Oklahoma. This does not mean that consolidation should not be part of a lively debate. Using the consolidation of districts or administrations may help small schools run more efficiently. But it should in no way be linked to the larger and more serious issue of school funding. Holding funding hostage to consolidation might be an effective political technique. But it is not honest, not helpful, and, for my fellow Republicans, it is not conservative.
If the political leadership of this state wants to tackle the consolidation issue, then it should be considered separate from school funding.
->There is no solid evidence that the possible (but not proven) financial benefits of consolidation would improve the education received in rural schools. The A-F system in Oklahoma is not a reliable grading system, but it must be noted that there are very small schools rated in the “A” range. As an aside, at least one of those districts is on a four day week.
->There is no best practice on the best size for a school. One could argue that large schools are more inefficient because they are too centrally managed. Large corporations in the private sector can and do have the same problems. Not all large corporations are fat with bureaucracy, but it is intuitive to assume that this is a risk in large organizations. Bill Gates spent a good deal of money (nigh unto $1 Billion) to bust up large high schools in to “better” small high schools. This effort has quietly diminished because it did not really work. It was just a case of his misunderstanding of statistics in the first place. (
->In most cases the decision to consolidate is made locally. When schools are forced to close it is because the state has had to step in for various local issues that result in financial insolvency. As much noise as some people make about consolidating districts, it is not in the DNA of a Republican legislative body to usurp local control and close a school against the wishes of its patrons.
-> The number of school districts has been dropping in Oklahoma since statehood and will most likely continue to drop. The only exception to this is, oddly, charter schools not run by a school district. Each such charter school functions as a school district. Oddly the pro-charter voices are usually the same as the pro consolidation voices.
No matter how you consider it, consolidating has zero impact on the per-student funding from the legislature. Zero. So this issue is raised as a smoke screen every time funding is discussed. The rest of this piece is intentionally explained in a factual rational manner. However, this issue is one of he things that angers me about the situation of education funding in Oklahoma. It angers me that members of my own political party keep repeating the consolidation lie when they know it is a lie. It angers me to know that Republican-led states all over the nation fund schools better than we do here. It is fine to talk about efficient government and responsible use of taxpayer money. It is wrong, deceptive and downright slimy politics to use this issue to deny proper funding for education in Oklahoma. This is why we must continue to make the effort to set the record straight.