Wednesday, June 08, 2005


The news that the Omaha Public Schools is launching a hostile takeover of Ralston, Millard and Elkhorn schools may not be all bad. It may wind up inspiring some much-needed development in private-sector education in West Omaha. I know that was my first thought for our daughter, who’s 5. Huge school districts are bad news all across the country, and tomorrow we’ll talk about another reason why they’re not good for kids – nor for any of us, politically speaking. The place to be is in a small private school where the focus is still on academics and not social engineering. Driving the smart kids out of the public schools is the last thing the power push by OPS is probably intended to do, but I predict that’s what it will do. And that’s not all bad.


Is Consolidation Worth It?

Q. We’re all for smaller class sizes and smaller schools. So then, why are so many people demanding the opposite -- bigger school districts – when smaller seems to be better everywhere else in education? Are the economies of scale that you can get by consolidating schools really worth it?

In a word, no. According to research compiled by education reporter Mike Antonucci, students do worse academically in a huge school district than if they were in a smaller one. Why? Because educators get “off-task” from their basic mission in those big districts. Instead of gaining economies of scale, Antonucci says that paradoxically, big districts create “penalties of scale.” The ultimate victim: learning.

In a 1999 article, he reported that the nation’s largest school districts spend only about 50 percent of their budgets on classroom instruction, compared to the national average of 61.7 percent. In the bigger districts, fewer than half the staff are classroom teachers, too, as more and more specialized nonteaching staff is hired to support the bigger numbers of students and teachers in various nonclassroom functions.

Diverting money from the classroom is destructive to all students, he wrote, but especially low-income and minority students.

“(E)vidence suggests that the larger a school district gets, the more resources it devotes to secondary or even non-essential activities,” he wrote. “Schools provide transportation, counseling, meals, child care, health services, security, and soon these ‘support’ functions require support of their own.”

It should be noted that bigger staffs and more staff specialization lead to more management problems involving coordination and control. Unions also gain more bargaining power since they are working with bigger bargaining units, so salaries and other personnel costs tend to rise.
Meanwhile, what falls by the wayside? Student learning.

The bottom line: the more “inputs” into a school district, the lower the “outputs” – student achievement rates.

As a model, we should be looking at successful private schools, which have relatively tiny administrative staffs, spend a whopping amount of money in the classroom vs. on everything else, and consistently whip public schools academically.

Homework: Antonucci’s Nov. 17, 1999, research article is available on the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute’s site,
www.adti.net, by searching for its title, “Mission Creep: How Large School Districts Lose Sight of the Objective – Student Learning”

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