Tuesday, August 09, 2005


We don’t ask much. We just want Nebraska’s students to learn better, and spend less money in the process.

I don’t know a single educator anywhere who would disagree with that goal. But I don’t know many educators who think it’s attainable.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And the evidence is loud and clear, that consolidating school districts into big monopolies is NOT the way to meet either of those goals. Competition is.

Yesterday, we learned how the “economies of scale” often touted as the key reason for consolidation are actually quite minimal, because the big money is in salaries and benefits. It’s OK to spend a little more per pupil for administration, if you’re managing the troops better, in other words. And that shows up in nonfinancial data such as dropout and graduation rates, test scores, absenteeism, percentage of students labeled as “learning disabled,” and so forth.

It actually may be a false economy to spend a little less on administration, if the other data isn’t so hot. And that’s what we find with the Omaha Public Schools. The state’s largest district may spend a few dollars less on administration than its suburban neighbors, but their other data is so much better, it’s pointless as braggin’ material.

Actually, it’s the more moderate size of those suburban districts that might provide a lot of their superior academic results. That’s because medium and small districts have students with better results.

When it comes to managing schools in a way that will optimize spending and maximize student achievement, the answer seems to be actually to de-consolidate schools and keep them at more moderate levels of enrollment. Better achievement, more participation, and happier taxpayers are the result.

Is anybody listening at OPS, or the other pro-OPS forces involved with the current push to force consolidation on the suburbs?

Is anybody listening down at the Legislature, where they voted to let the country schools die?

I hope so. Because this is important.

And guess what: I’m going to consolidate as much as this information as I can into a big suggestion tomorrow of a possible win-win-win solution. I hope it knocks your consolidated socks off.

District Size and Academic Achievement

Q. Do bigger school districts do a better job for kids, or smaller ones?

It’s obvious that smaller private elementary and high schools have much higher test scores for their students than big public districts can match. That gap holds true even when the school serves low-income students traditionally thought to be harder and more expensive to teach.
It’s thought that this is due to the powerful accountability that comes from having most parents paying tuition, and therefore having more control and higher expectations of staff for cost-efficiency. But there may be more to it than that.
According to educational researchers, smaller and medium-size public school districts post higher student achievement than big ones, especially for low-income and minority students. While the Rural School and Community Trust points to the quality provided by small, rural schools, especially among low-income students (
www.ruraledu.org), studies by researchers such as Driscoll, Halcoussis and Shirley Svorny (School District Size and Student Performance, 2003, studying 5,525 schools in 755 districts in California) concluded that “district size has a negative effect on student performance, as measured by standardized test scores” (p. 199).
It seems there’s an optimal size of school district in which economies of scale are maximized, but students still receive sufficient personal attention from teachers and other staff members, and the bureaucracy is small enough to sustain good home-school relationships, so kids flourish without too much ineffective, nonclassroom spending.
What is that level of enrollment for maximum efficiency and highest achievement? Somewhere less than 6,000, according to research.
According to a report by the Goldwater Institute criticizing proposals to consolidate schools in Arizona for academic as well as financial reasons, “medium districts averaging roughly 2,400 students perform as well as our better than the state’s 10 largest districts, which average nearly 34,000 students.”
The report said, “In consolidated school districts, the result is worse education and higher, not lower, per-pupil costs. . . . (E)vidence suggests smaller districts contribute to higher SAT, ACT and NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores.”
The institute concluded that significantly higher student achievement could be won at an actual cost savings – not additional spending – of as much as $1,530 per pupil, if Arizona were to increase competition by expanding its existing school-choice options.

Homework: See the conclusion of the report, “Competition or Consolidation? The School District Consolidation Debate Revisited,” Jan. 12, 2004, starting on page 30 on

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