Submitted on 5/18/07
In response to the letter, “Think of the Children,” May 17, page A10, I’d like to suggest that many of us who oppose the various consolidation plans are not “clinging to the status quo.” We have looked at analyses of administrative and instructional costs in Maine, and are not convinced that forced school district consolidation will reduce high overall education expenses or increase dollars spent inclassrooms.
It turns out that Maine spends less than the national average on second-tier administrative functions (program directors, etc). As a result, Maine has a higher percentage of total expenditures going directly to classrooms than most other states. (See Professor Gordon Donaldson, University of Maine, "Pursuing Administrative Efficiencies for Maine Schools," available athttp://portfolio.umaine.edu/~edl.) Under these circumstances, consolidating into larger districts is not likely to increase the percentage of dollars spent on instruction. Nor are larger districts likely to produce savings in total dollars spent. This is because the proposed consolidation of school administrative functions is based on a mis-understanding of the legal context and financial incentives involved in school district governance, which are significantly different than in the private sector.
School districts have captive customers because of compulsory school attendance laws. Further, school districts control the tax dollars raised for publicly-funded education, and they limit who can supply public education programs. They also control demand because they decide which schools students can attend (with a few minor exceptions).
With all this power concentrated at the district level, families find it difficult to persuade district providers to improve quality of services, or to provide different kinds of education services. With captive customers, district administrators have few incentives to keep their expenses low or to improve the quality of services offered.
Dissatisfied customers have to pay for private schools, pay to move to another district, or pay in time and energy to homeschool.Consolidation experience in other states suggests that, very quickly, second-tier administrative costs will skyrocket and overall school budgets will still be very high. Changing the size of districts doesn’t change the legal context - a bigger district would still monopolize education resources and taxpayers would continue to have little control over rising expenditures.
What other approaches might be more effective? We should change the legal context by;
The state would still set the rules, the academic standards, and protect health, safety and civil rights obligations. Allowing parents to become active choosers among public education options, rather than captive customers, would have a dramatic effect on education quality and cost-effectiveness over time. Most other states are implementing some or all of these approaches. We can learn from them how to change the legal context of publicly-funded education and use parental choice among public school options to improve the quality of education in all public schools in Maine.
Judith Jones, Ph.D.
Ms. Jones is a sociologist and education planner; a former director of Facilities Planning for District of Columbia Public Schools; and a former chair of the coordinating council for the Six School Complex, a cluster of public schools with a unified enrollment area and parental choice among 4 elementary schools in Washington, D.C. Currently she is chair of the Maine Association for Public Charter Schools.
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