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.
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 this article on the Oklahoma Historical Society web page, Oklahoma had several thousand little school districts shortly after statehood.
“In 1918 there were 5,783 total districts, of which 5,178 were rural one-school districts, 408 were rural consolidated or union graded in rural areas, and 197 were independent districts in cities. Ten years later, in 1928 there were 5,095 districts; of these, 4,350 were rural one-school districts, 394 were rural consolidated or union, and 351 were urban independent. Change was gradual, but persistent.”
It is easy to see that 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. The reduction in the number of traditional school districts in Oklahoma is somewhat muddled by the increase in independent charter schools. These are treated as “school districts” in state of Oklahoma reports.
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.
(Edit 2/18/2018) Byron Schlomach authored a report entitled A Primer for Understanding Oklahoma’s School Funding System for the 1889 institute. I don’t have a lot of information about this institute. I have seen Schlomach’s name attached to online pieces that are not favorable to Oklahoma education. In any case, this primer covers Oklahoma education funding sources well. One of the interesting things Schlomach turned up seems to show that the school systems that spend the most money per student are the 13 largest districts in Oklahoma. He calls them “mega schools.”
This is also interesting. It considers only state funding, which is what we are discussing. Compare the percentage of students (ADM) in the various school size grouping with the percentage of state funding they receive. As you can see, the smallest schools’ funding percentage is indeed higher than their ADM percentage <sarcasm alert> by a whopping 0.7%. The 500-1000 member districts are lower by 0.9 and the 1,000 to 10,000 districts are lower by 3.1%. Lower means their percentage of state aid is lower than the percentage of the numbers of students. The least favorable comparison is in the 13 largest schools which are above 10,000 students. Their percentage of state expenditures (39.6%) is a full 3.3 percentage points higher than their ADM (36.3). It is possible that much of this difference comes from federal funding for special education and Chapter 1 rather than inefficient operations. There is no huge financial savings to be had in consolidating the very small school systems. That’s the big news.
Graph from A Primer for Understanding Oklahoma’s School Funding System by Byron Schlomach Published in 2015 by the 1889 Institute. Opinions in this blog post are not endorsed by the 1889 Institute nor does this blog support all efforts of the 1889 Institute.
What size is most efficient? This question is largely ignored because it does not fit anyone’s agenda. It might make far more sense to bust up larger districts rather than consolidate small ones. This is actually under consideration in North Carolina. 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. The graph above would seem suggest that county wide schools that the Florida copycats push in Oklahoma might be an awful idea.
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 smaller districts that are highly rated it is hard to justify consolidating these districts for academic reasons. For instance, as of the writing of this blog 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. Most schools receive most of their state funding 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. Many of these schools are smaller schools. (The cut off is, as I recall, is local funding that is 300% higher than the maximum state aid. Schools that have that level of local funding receive no aid through the formula. 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. The amount of state aid is not impacted by consolidation. 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 to force this from the state.
If the political leadership of this state wants to tackle the consolidation issue, then the issue should be separated 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 just as easily 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 been minimized because it did not really work. It was just a case of his misunderstanding of statistics. The law of small numbers strikes again.
->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. Those who are against increasing taxes to fund schools like to point at how much money could be saved by firing all those unnecessary superintendents. Of course the large schools would develop more layers of administration.
-> 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.
A great survey of the history and growth of public education in Oklahoma
Schools, Common – Oklahoma Historical Society webpage at www.okhistory.org
A concise article by Emily Wendler of KOSU about the failure of school consolidation to save any money in Arkansas. Arkansas set 350 students as the cutoff line for consolidation.
An interesting look at an effort to split large school districts in North Carolina. There are huge barriers to getting this done. But it is ironic that this is under discussion when the big answer to all problems is to consolidate here.