Third Feature Article
Local School Districts mean Better Education:
Why county-wide school consolidations increase costs and special interest group control
Is bigger really better? This is the crucial question facing New Jersey’s schools as the state moves toward a consolidated county-wide school district framework. The proposed consolidation would eliminate local school district administrative personnel and centralize the operation of each of the county’s schools within one county-wide district such as the model used in Maryland. As a result, all decisions concerning local school functions would be made at the county level with little local recourse.
While consolidation may sound tempting, because it is based on a presumption of economies-of-scale leading to assumed lower operating costs as well as improved administrative efficiencies which, in turn, are expected to result in lower property taxes plus greater parental engagement, the reality is much different, however. It has been shown that county-wide districts often result in increased costs, increased bureaucracy, students being so remote that parents are less engaged, and increased special interest group control of the agenda, curriculum as well as the distribution of funds.
County-wide school districts tend to expand the county departments of education into unwieldy bureaucracies. These bureaucracies often become so large that their administrative costs exceed the combined cost of the local administrative personnel, including but not limited to superintendents, business administrators and directors of special education, they are supposed to replace. Moreover, because these county departments of education are staffed largely by political appointees, they tend to operate without the essential public feedback that is the backbone of local boards of education.
At the outset, New Jersey’s legislators used Maryland’s experience as a benchmark for the expected savings and efficiencies for New Jersey’s consolidation. However, during her testimony to a panel of New Jersey state senators, Ms. Marie S. Bilik, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, demonstrated that the total state-wide administrative costs of the Maryland school system exceed those of New Jersey’s. While testifying in front of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on March 20, 2008, Ms. Bilik referenced an U.S. Department of Education report (2006), “A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education ranks New Jersey 38th among the states and District of Columbia in the percentage of current expenditures devoted to administration. That means 37 other states – including Maryland and Pennsylvania – spend more on administration than New Jersey.” In addition, enrollment in New Jersey’s public schools was over fifty percent greater than that of Maryland during the same period and continues to exceed Maryland’s enrollment by similar margins. Thus, rather than removing administrative costs, the Maryland model has actually added costs and administrative overhead.
While New Jersey has not yet moved to a complete county-wide model, its recent school consolidation legislation has significantly increased the power of the politically appointed Executive County Superintendent. Among these expanded powers is the ability to compel the creation or expansion of regional school districts with the ultimate goal of consolidating the regionalized districts into one county-wide school district in every county. New Jersey’s county-wide school districts would be run by Executive County Superintendents, political appointees, who would not be accountable to the voters but rather would serve at the discretion of partisan political forces.
But consolidation of local school districts into county level districts also tends to result in more of a traditional military-type command-and-control decision making process rather than a process controlled by local school districts with the active participation of local constituencies most notably local parents. In a command-and-control model, while the federal and state policy makers develop the overall strategy for policy implementation, it is the county-wide school districts that combine these policies with their political directives to determine the curriculum, priorities and budget for each school. However, because the county level is too distant from where education actually takes place and is more easily influenced by special interest groups, the result is often less parental engagement.
Concentrating the school system at the local district level rather than at the county level will not only enable more resources to be focused on those most affected by education, the students, but also enable those most intimately involved in providing education, the teachers, to provide better instruction. But the rise of county departments of education will also cause the local school districts to spend less time on students as well as parents because more time will be required to be spent on bureaucratic obligations thereby decreasing parental engagement which is a key component in improving student performance. It is the local districts that not only are closest to the students but also have the necessary local expertise to most effectively decide how to provide a quality education.
Indeed, it seems as if the reason for preventing or eliminating county-wide school districts is embodied in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court not only ruled against school racial segregation by striking down the practice of separate but equal but also established the right of all students to attend their neighborhood school. Consistent with this ruling, it is essential that every child be able to attend their neighborhood school within a local school district free from the burden of county level bureaucracies so that the schools are better able to concentrate on improving every student’s performance.
Consolidating local school districts into larger county-wide districts removes decision making authority from those most affected by educational policy decisions: the individual student as well as his/her parents, school and district. It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at a centralized level where special interest groups have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes including local school budgets. Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number tends to result in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, more political patronage and reduced local parental input.
Bilik, M. S. (2008). Testimony: FY09 State Budget, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Senate Annex, Committee Room 4, Trenton, New Jersey, March 20, 2008.
U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2006). Common Core of Data, August, 2006.