Should Pennsylvania Consolidate Its School Districts?

Rep. Victor Lescovitz (D-Beaver) wants to consolidate Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts into 67 districts or fewer, in an effort to reduce costs. While a few states are going in the opposite direction, Mr. Lescovitz certainly has company in others, where politicians are looking at similar proposals.

Unfortunately, consolidation is the result of myopic thinking—the idea that simply consolidating school districts will produce economies of scale, thereby reducing costs and boosting efficiency, and leaving everything else the same. The reality in public education, however, is that when you consolidate districts, a lot of other things change—most of them for the worse.

The history of public education suggests that despite proponent’s promises of lower costs and stronger student performance from district consolidation, neither occurs in practice. Over the long haul, consolidation sucks power away from parents, students, and local entities to centralized and inflexible political arrangements where unions and other special interests have more political clout. Accountability declines and the character and role of the schools deteriorate. The result has been higher, not lower, per pupil costs and worse education for students.

Consolidation, however, is nothing new in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1900s, the Commonwealth had 2,530 school districts. Over the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the number of school districts in Pennsylvania fell by 77.8%, to 505 districts. Today there are 501 school districts. Over the same period, school sizes increased greatly, resulting in schools that are often too large.

If Mr. Lescovitz’s theory were correct, all this consolidation should have produced lower per-pupil costs. Instead, these consolidations were accompanied by rising perpupil costs—costs which came to be borne increasingly by non-local sources. Nationally, from 1960 to 1980, per-pupil expenditures, in constant dollars, increased a whopping 138%. And as real per-pupil spending sextupled from the end of World War II to today, the local share of public-school funding dwindled from 80 percent (early 1900s) to 45.4 percent in 2000. This nationwide shift in funding away from the local level has not gone as far in Pennsylvania, where 56% of school funding still comes from local taxes.

While Gov. Rendell wants the state to assume even more funding responsibility for our local schools, we must remember that power extends from the money source. In education, that has meant following it to Harrisburg, where adult special interest groups are better able both to secure larger hikes in school funding and to divert much of the incremental increases toward themselves and their members—away from the children who are supposed to be served.

In addition to cost-escalation, consolidation discourages competition and educational diversity. Economist Sam Peltzman has found that it adversely affects both the cost of education and the performance of students. He discovered that deterioration in pupil performance was greatest where the shift in funding from local to state sources
was greatest. Peltzman also found that the upward movement of power added to union influence.

As an example, consider teacher pay and work rules. Teacher unions bargain at the district level. As districts become larger, negotiators on both sides are farther removed from direct knowledge of individual teachers and schools. District-wide and inflexible pay schedules and work rules become more detached from the performance of real teachers and schools.

What did we get for this massive increase in education spending and centralization of funding and decision making? Not much. The data show gradually improving pupil performance until the early 1960s. From then until the early 1980s, when Pennsylvania underwent massive district and school consolidation, scores plummeted such that, by the end of this period, high school graduates were about one and one-half years behind their predecessors of the early 1960s. There has since been some recovery in scores, but all test scores are well below what they would have been had the pre-1960s trend continued.

Why should this be? Effective-schools research indicates that achievement is stronger where schools establish a clear identity for students—a community of interest. Yet consolidation pushes the other way. Larger schools necessarily had less sense of community. While diversity may be a plus in other ways, it probably does not square with improved student performance.

In education, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. More consolidation will push both education costs and student performance in unwanted directions. While there are certainly instances where consolidation may be beneficial, as a general rule school district consolidation, and the inevitable further consolidation of schools that will follow, were, and still are, a bad idea whose time never was.

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John T. Wenders, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at the University of Idaho.