Is school consolidation a solution? Yes and no
August 3, 2012
There was some good reporting Sunday in The Oklahoman on the topic of school consolidation in Oklahoma.
As OCPA never tires of repeating, policymakers have a solemn duty to spend tax dollars as efficiently as possible. So if money could be saved by consolidating school districts and/or sharing administrative services, that’s definitely worth exploring (though administrative bloat is not where the biggest savings are to be found).
But one danger in talking about school consolidation is that it could cause us to take our eye off the ball. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to restructure an inherently flawed system—as long as we remember that this perestroika is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is freedom. We want parents to have more choices and more control over their children’s education. And, indeed, historian Bob Blackburn has a point when he says of consolidation that “the idea of giving up control over your school district in your local community is not the conservative way.”
One way to think through this is to compare public education with another heavily unionized monopoly run by the government—the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS, which essentially went broke Wednesday, loses billions of dollars every year, and its customer service leaves a lot to be desired. Suppose we took the approximately 31,000 post offices and consolidated to, say, 25,000 post offices. We may save some money, but we still haven’t changed the underlying problem. A heavily unionized government entity still has a monopoly on the delivery of first-class mail and standard mail. Instead of tinkering at the edges, it would be far better to take the advice of President Obama’s former OMB director, Peter Orszag: “privatize the U.S. Postal Service.”
The same principles apply whether you’re delivering mail or delivering education. Freedom works. School-district consolidation may save some money, but we still haven’t addressed the underlying crisis. And it is a crisis: Oklahoma is “among the worst-performing education systems in the U.S.,” and even our “best” school districts are mediocre by international standards.
We’ve got serious educational problems that call for bold political leadership. So yes, let’s look to share some administrative services (why are there seven school districts in Stillwell, a town of some 4,000 people?). But more importantly, let’s look for ways to bring education into the free-enterprise system.