Making Cents of School Unification and Consolidation

There’s a lot of talk these days about school reform.

President Obama has addressed it in his Race to the Top initiative, challenging states to find creative ways to turn around failing schools and advance top-notch teachers.

Hollywood has addressed it in the highly acclaimed documentary, Waiting for Superman, by portraying the struggles of ordinary families in search of quality education.

Educational nonprofits, like Stand for Children Arizona, have addressed it with legislative changes such as the Teacher and Principal Evaluation framework, a new assessment that makes student progress a critical part of teacher evaluations.

From politicians to entertainers and education advocates, Americans seem to be on the same page, agreeing reform must happen and happen soon. But how do we reform our schools when we lack monies to fund them?

Here in Arizona we have a golden opportunity to both change our educational system and put more money into our classrooms. How? Through unification and consolidation.

Many readers are already familiar with this topic since it was only three years ago when voters defeated a similar proposal, but though it may have appeared too complex an issue back then, today’s economic situation makes it deserving of another look.

The biggest positive of unification and consolidation, the merging of high school and elementary districts into K-12 districts, is the cost savings, estimated at upwards of 10% of K-12 funding or roughly $890 million. That’s not chump change.

In the last three years, the legislature has slashed $1 billion in education funding, and soon they may slash even more as the temporary 1-cent sales tax is scheduled to come to an end. It’s imperative we find ways to save money and stop the draining of education dollars. But it’s also imperative we do not reform for cost-saving reasons alone.

While unification is certainly a win-win on the budget side of things, it’s also a boon for students. For instance, if a child with average marks enters a high school district and suddenly finds herself with failing marks, it’s easy for the separate districts to point fingers. The elementary district can claim the responsibility lies with the high school district while the high school district can claim the elementary district failed to adequately prepare the child. The real answer may be one or the other or somewhere in between.

Having a unified district clarifies accountability and allows an alignment of philosophies and goals between the differing schools. The state is better able to track student achievement and perform more of an apples-to-apples comparison of districts.

It also reduces redundancy while improving efficiency. For example, one K-12 district means the elimination of redundant administrative positions and overhead as well as the reduction of transportation services and costs.

Critics of unification and consolidation claim there are many difficult and costly hurdles in making the transition successful. And they’re correct. Determining how to equalize teacher salaries, deal with voter approved bonds and overrides and cut positions and boards is not an easy task. The politics of those types of decisions, when left up to local boards and schools, could undermine the entire process.

But there are possible solutions for these problems. One is to unify districts based on performance-based triggers, meaning under or poorly performing districts merge with highly performing districts. Another takes the decisions of unification and consolidation out of the hands of school boards and bases them on recommendations from outside experts.

The legislature would be wise to see the benefit in offering the funds needed to ensure a smooth transition. Yes, that will mean paying high upfront costs, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the initial fiscal pains. And if the legislature can find ways to pay for the creation of a multimillion-dollar Commerce Authority, surely it can find ways to pay for unification and consolidation costs.

Members of the study committee, most notably Representative John Fillmore, have said they wish to see the savings from unification returned to the classrooms. And while I understand why many Arizonans may be skeptical of those claims, I’m persuaded to take them at their word mainly because the committee is co-chaired by the legislature’s staunchest education supporters, Senator Rich Crandall and Representative Doris Goodale.

Right now the study group is working to create a plan that garners support from multiple stakeholders. They still have a long road to travel, but if they can convince the broader legislature to fund upfront costs while putting long-term savings back into the classrooms, they will be one giant step closer to putting Arizona on the right track to educational reform. And that would be one Arizona news story worth spreading.

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