Friday, July 08, 2005


If you want to get serious about school reform, you have to talk about making more than just a few cosmetic changes. Here’s one of the most exciting and promising proposals yet: deconsolidation.

Middle-class parents in suburban Omaha don’t want the Omaha Public Schools to take their schools over, and who can blame them? OPS has problems they don’t want.

So let’s not let the Omaha Public Schools grow. Let’s make it shrink!

Let’s push for deconsolidation of the state’s largest school district, turning over a number of its more troubled schools to management teams in Millard, Ralston, Elkhorn and District 66. Give each of those districts one or more of OPS’ most troubled schools, and watch those suburban educators turn things around! If you only have one or two schools with big problems, it’s a lot easier to work on them, than if the majority of your district is a headache.

Meanwhile, get OPS’ bureaucracy under control by relieving that district of, say, 50% of its staff, who’d go along with the transferred schools to the smaller, better suburban districts. Naturally, the OPS central office wouldn’t have to be so big, either, and that would be a good thing, cost-wise.

If you really want to be smart, you could consolidate the nonclassroom functions into one big, county-wide business office, to get economies of scale in things like ordering toilet paper, lightbulbs, running the buses, and so forth. But let separate management teams of educators keep doing the academic management in the separate districts. That would keep the spirit of competition alive in Omaha, instead of a deadening monopoly, as would happen if we let OPS take over the schools in the ‘burbs.

Instead of one big, less-than-great urban district and four or five pretty good suburban ones, we’d end up with several equal sized districts which would all have more diversity, and in which the low-income kids and middle-class ones alike would have more of a chance for success.

Deconsolidation makes just as much sense in greater Nebraska, where the Class I parents are having to go to war to try to save their schools from being consolidated into town schools against their will.

Around the country, the trend is more toward smaller, better districts. So for once, let’s be in the “in” crowd:



Q. Are there any moves around the country for going back to medium- and small-size school districts?

Yes, several. The reasons people want to break up huge school districts:

-- the years-old, ever-widening achievement gap between rich and poor, white and black which begs for a different school management approach;

-- a perceived overemphasis on special-needs students, including non-English speaking immigrants, at the expense of longtime citizens of normal or strong academic ability;

-- chronic overspending on nonclassroom pursuits because of the empowered bureaucracy;

-- overcrowding;

-- safety issues;

-- inequitable funding;

-- lack of responsiveness by elected officials and school leaders since individual students and their families have minute political pull in a huge district;

-- resistance to change because of the excessive power which school consolidation gives to unions and school employees, and

-- an overwhelming sense of a lack of local control.

Thinkers such as Allan Carlson, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (www.profam.org), are calling for deconsolidation down to the individual school level. Each school would have its own elected governing board and its own tax levy. It could serve all ages, or just offer traditional K-12, and it could be open full- or part-time, offering a broad curriculum or a more narrow focus. Where the economic circumstances of a school district are inadequate, a state education board could make a supplemental grant out of general revenues.

Ironically, the school system where court-ordered busing got its start has a raging battle going on about deconsolidation. The 120,000 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., would be divided into three districts, but a state law to make that change failed this legislative session. The battle pitched mayors and parents against school-district officials, union leaders and Democratic politicians.

Various scenarios are being proposed to keep an equal amount of low-income students in the smaller districts that would be created, including cutting up the big district like pieces of a pie to include inner-city neighborhoods in each new district.

State Rep. John Rhodes pledged to keep trying, saying, “If the local school system will not listen and act on our customers’ – the taxpayers’ – concerns about safety, overcrowding and inefficiencies, then their state representative is listening, and will.”

Homework: There’s a large and active grassroots organization pushing for deconsolidation in the Charlotte area: Don’t Underestimate Mecklenburg Parents,

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