Thursday, June 16, 2005


The move by the Omaha Public Schools to take over its suburban neighbors does not bode well for the future academic achievement of the Omaha metropolitan area as a whole.

Bigger is not better – not by any stretch of the imagination.

What might actually be best would be to have a county-wide “housekeeping” office, serving all schools in the metro area, for purchasing -- to obtain the real economies of scale that come with big numbers in ordering goods and services.

But then do away with the enormous bureaucracy, and have each high school declared to be its own district, with its own elected school board responsible for hiring and firing the principal, who in turn would be responsible for hiring and firing everyone else.

That’s because the evidence shows that, up and down the demographic scale, kids do best in small schools and small districts which minimize fluff and maximize instruction.

The only down side is that it would make the job of the news reporters harder. Imagine covering ALL those school board meetings!


Is ‘One City, One School District’ Wise Public Policy?

Q. Can school consolidation go too far? I can see important economies of scale that can be gained by consolidating numerous school districts into one big one. But in our metro area there’s one big district that’s having some problems, and it’s ringed by richer, more successful, and smaller districts. Now it wants to swallow them up. Will that help learning, in the long run?

Not if what’s happened in other cities is any yardstick. According to researchers such as Herbert J. Walberg, states with lower achievement scores have bigger schools and bigger school districts. Big school districts tend to have test scores below what their demographics would suggest, while small school districts tend to overachieve. Huge school districts generally have the worst achievement, affective and social outcomes for kids, researcher Kathleen Cotton reported, and low-income students suffer the most.

Larger school districts supposedly hold down costs because of centralized and streamlined functions, and offer more academic choice and depth to students. But according to the evidence, what they really yield is inordinate power to the bureaucracy, parental alienation, overcomplicated budgets that block efforts at accountability, and diseconomies of scale as funds are allocated more toward the nonteaching bureaucracy and less toward instruction.

We’ve known this for a long time, too: a 1984 study by Webb and Ohm found that smaller districts not only posted better test-score results, but were more cost-effective than larger ones in dollars spent per student and numbers of administrators per student.

Another indication that big districts are a problem: suburban schools that are part of behemoth urban districts all over the country would love to secede. Example: schools in the San Fernando Valley would love to leave the gigantic, problem-plagued Los Angeles Unified School District. And inducing Chicago’s wealthier suburban districts to merge into the urban core district would be a tough sell indeed.

Nowhere is it written that it’s a good idea to have a single district in a metropolitan area, anyway. Consider the San Jose, Calif., metro area: Santa Clara County has 36 public-school districts, 19 of them within the city limits. The only ones who don’t seem to like it are the news reporters: that’s a lot of school board meetings to cover.

Homework: Report, “Big Trouble: Solving Education Problems Means Rethinking Super-Size Schools and Districts,” by David Cox,
www.SutherlandInstitute.org and also see “Small Works in Arkansas: How Poverty and the Size of Schools and School Districts Affect School Performance in Arkansas” on www.ruraledu.org/docs/sapss/ar_rep02.html

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