Does consolidating school districts save money and lead to greater efficiency? It’s not so simple.

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source: screenshot of Google Images for “Spidey Sense”

Earlier this year, various proposed bills emerged at the Legislature that would require small public school districts to consolidate. While the bills have inspired a great deal of controversy, one key aspect has been left unexamined. In short, it has been simply assumed that consolidating small school districts will lead to greater efficiency and cost savings.

The stated goal of these bills is to create more “efficiency” through district consolidation. In other words, instead of a number of small districts, these districts could merge and thus, in theory, find savings by cutting redundant positions or services and find economics of scale (e.g. think buying in bulk at Costco versus small units at CVS). So let’s summarize the proposed bills.

With few other details, the first bill would require public school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to consolidate. Similarly, the second bill would require towns with fewer than 40,000 resident to consolidate public school districts associated with those towns. The final Governor’s bill would form a committee, commission some committee reports, and put together a plan for district consolidation. The bill includes some potential of incentives for districts to consolidate.

The first two bills are somewhat more clear cut about which districts consolidate, while the third bill is less clear on that point but has more direction about a process. That’s a very short summary, but we can unpack more later.

So would consolidating districts save money by reducing redundant services or creating greater efficiency? It seems like common sense. It might work in some cases and depending on the implementation. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Here are a few considerations.

District size is only one measure in determining efficiency. 

When people conduct efficiency analyses, district size is only one measure of understanding costs. While it is true that rural districts tend to cost more on a per-pupil basis, that doesn’t mean the they are less efficient, per se (Baker, 2018).

Scholars can do complex statistical analyses to understand whether one group of districts is more efficient in terms of cost and performance (Baker, 2018). Other measures include spending, district demographics and enrollment, academic achievement, town geographical characteristics, labor costs, and other variables.

Consolidating districts can reshape labor markets in unintended ways.

A concern of people that study consolidating school districts is that this reform could lead to unintended consequences in the labor market. Yet, in the public discussion, it is assumed that consolidating districts can lead to eliminating redundant positions or merging  functions like a superintendent for example.

But let’s think this through for a minute.

Consolidate two districts into one and only one superintendent is needed, right?

Here’s a problem. This move would change the labor market.

The new superintendent might command a higher wage to oversee a larger district and might need more help to administer it.

With regard to teachers, there are other issues to consider. Here’s an example.

If three small, rural districts consolidate, there would be one larger employer and also three  labor associations and agreements to consolidate. Which collective bargaining agreement would prevail? The more generous pay scale (average pay is $60K)? something in the middle (average pay is $50K)? The lowest (average pay is $40K)?

Two of the bills mention collective bargaining, but don’t provide many details. In Massachusetts, a consolidation law requires that the most generous collectively bargained pay scale for teachers would prevail when districts merge (Cronin, 2010). So if that were the case in Connecticut, instead of three districts with varying pay scales, there could remain a much larger one with larger pay for all the teachers. A simulation of Illinois district consolidation predicted a similar issue of increase in teacher pay with consolidation of small public school districts (Heiney, 2012). These unintended results of changing the labor market would cut into potential savings of merging school districts.

The incentives offered to districts to consolidate can be larger than cost savings from consolidation.

The Governor’s bill and proposal includes potential incentives to districts that consolidate. Unanswered questions remain such as: What kind of incentives are we talking about? And how big? These details matter.

Consolidating school districts, small or large, might lead to some degree of greater efficiency or cost savings. But in particularly small districts, these savings might be very small. It’s simple math.

Merging two districts with a few hundred students and cutting a principal or superintendent is only going to get you so far in terms of cost savings, maybe a few hundred thousand dollars. In Hartford, CT, closing three schools serving more than 1,000 students supposedly saved $5 million for three years for a total of $15 million (again, supposedly). The scale is just different. (I’m neither supporting closing schools or merging districts here, just providing a comparison.)

And if the incentives are large enough in terms of aid grants or capital improvement grants to small districts to consolidate, these could end up being  larger than the money saved. Scholars found this issue in Iowa after consolidation of small school districts in the 1990s. Small districts took the incentives to consolidate, but they outweighed the cost savings. The ultimate result was that limited State funding was diverted from more needy school districts to rural school districts that did not need more funding (Gordon and Knight, 2008).

These are some things to consider. There are tons of questions about these proposals and very few details. When I see bills like these without much detail and with limited analysis, it raises my Latino spider sense that something is seriously suspect.

More to come…

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.

References

Baker, B. D. (2018). Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Heiney, J. N. (2012). Can State & Local Government Consolidation Really Save Money. Journal of Business & Economics Research, 10(10), 539–546.

Cronin, J. M. (2010). A Case Study of School District Consolidation. School Administrator, 67(5).
Gordon, N., & Knight, B. (2008). The Effects of School District Consolidation on Educational Cost and Quality. Public Finance Review, 36(4), 408–430.

Quality Integrated Education – Next Steps for School Desegregation in Hartford, CT

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Here is a summary of steps I would take moving forward on school desegregation in CT. This is based on my reading of history and research in schools and communities now. These are some ideas of how we can build on the historic investment in racially diverse schools in Hartford, CT area prompted by the Sheff v. O’Neill case. This is not a retreat from pursuing racial diversity (numerical desegregation), but an addition and broadening of goals (qualitative integration). These are my own thoughts, not of any particular group or plaintiffs. 

Quality

• All Hartford schools will provide high-quality and effective education for its students.
• All Hartford schools will have the resources that students need to be successful.
• Support high-quality Latinx and Black schools where they exist. (e.g. definition)

Integrated

• Understand the difference between numerical desegregation and qualitative integration.
• Support positive racial development of Black, Latinx, & Asian students in desegregated schools.
• Multicultural and multilingual education (e.g. ethnic studies, dual language programs).

Education

• Share accomplishments of quality and integration education (e.g. web, in-person, testimonies).
• Every “Sheff” school should have a plaque and website explaining Sheff v. O’Neill history.
• Listen and gather feedback from magnet and non-magnet students & families. (e.g. survey)
• Confront and campaign against school segregation, privatization, and dispossession.

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.

Recap of Moral Monday CT Event on (Ideology of) White Supremacy in Education & Upcoming Sheff Event (11/17)

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Yesterday, Moral Monday CT convened a discussion that examined the ideology of white supremacy in education at the Trinity College Liberal Arts Action Lab in downtown Hartford. Put simply, panelists and attendees critiqued the pervasive belief that white people are superior and should dominate all aspects of society.

Panelists included Richard de Meij, a Hartford Public Schools teacher, Michelle McKnight, a Manchester Public Schools teacher, and me. The conversation with audience members ranged from racial segregation, lack of Black and Latina/o teachers, lack of culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy for Black and Latino/a students, problems of educational testing and school choice, and a number of other areas. An especially spirited thread of the discussion focused on magnet schools in Hartford.

As one of panelists, I led the audience through a very, very brief history of magnet schools in Hartford. I brought up the challenges faced by Black and Latino leaders in getting resources for Hartford students in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. As a possible way of thinking about this challenge, I brought up the idea of interest convergence (Bell, 1980), or the idea that Black and Brown progress in civil rights tends to happen when white interests are also served. Well into the 1980s, Hartford was largely on its own when it came to state politics and school funding. Magnets were seen as way to bring white, black, and Puerto Rican interests together across city-town lines, confronting racial isolation of white students as much or more as Black and Puerto Rican students. Magnet had the potential to break the political divisions sustained by town-city lines.

When we got to the open discussion, that’s when things got interesting. Joining our discussion was one of the plaintiffs in the Robinson v. Wentzell case seeking to undue the “race-conscious” magnet system as currently designed. The leadership plaintiff Ms. LaShawn Robinson asked me, “why do you like magnet schools so much? And what would you do if you kid didn’t get into a magnet school?” I only had time to answer the first question, but here was my response as best as I remember it!

First, I clarified that I don’t believe that magnet schools as the only way of delivering equal educational opportunity. But I see magnets as an important tool from a historical lens.

Second, the people that thought to make magnet schools believed that kids of difference races would one day work together and they thought schools would be the place to practice racial integration. I admitted that this might seem a bit “polly-ann-ish,” but it was also the 60s. In other words, magnet schools in Hartford began at a time when people arguably had more hope for this country than they might do now.

Third, by bringing together kids from different towns and cities, magnets can be a tool for bringing white, black, Latino, and Asian interests together. If you believe in the permanence of racism as current Critical Race Theorists and many past leaders of color did, then you view little reason for whites do anything for Black and Latinas/os for greater educational opportunity beyond their own self-interests.

Indeed, whites (and some people of color) in the suburbs can go to their well-resourced and responsive schools, in their neighborhoods, and go to their jobs, then look over at city neighborhoods and underresourced and culturally irrelevant schools as “dysfunctional” or “low-performing” without having to question how things got to be the way they are. As other scholars have noted such Gary Orfield (2013), racial segregation in housing and schools sustains these beliefs of white superiority and limits any interest in doing much about racial inequality.

There might be people that believe in the idea of racial equality, but there needs to be some mechanism for making that reality. The Sheff case made the State of Connecticut spend money on magnet schools and they play a role in bringing disparate interests together in the region. Magnets succeed along some lines, but not others. (For an example of things gone tragically wrong, see the dispossession by the State and Hartford Board of Education of local Batchelder School to give the building to the Montessori Magnet School.)

Finally, I explained that there is nothing stopping the State of Connecticut from making non-magnet schools well-funded, fantastic places for kids and adults to learn and grow. There’s nothing stopping the State from making public schools more culturally relevant and responsive places to kids of color. If the State wants to make all schools fantastic, well-funded, and responsive to people of color, then do it! The Sheff plaintiffs aren’t stopping the State from improve all schools in the cities.

But the State simply won’t do more than the bare minimum as evidenced in the recent Supreme Court decision in the CCJEF case. In addition, recent school reforms such as school turnarounds, “Alliance” District funding, and Common Core have fallen flat. And right now, the current leadership wants to expand privately-managed, publicly-funded, also hyper-segregated charter schools rather than racially-diverse, magnet public schools.

To close the discussion, I raised the question of what will make white people, including the State, interested in Black and Latino progress in schools? If it’s not magnet schools under Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation, then what? If it’s not a lawsuit like the CCJEF school funding case, then what? Right now, the hot, monied interest is in school privatization through charter schools that takes money away from the public school system and even diverts money from charter school students through fees to management companies.

I wondered whether there was an over-emphasis on just changing “hearts and minds”, which may be necessary, but not sufficient for change. What protest, political force, direct action, or legal challenge will force the State and white people in the suburbs and cities into doing anything than the bare minimum offered to many urban schools today?

Notes: The event was organized by Moral Monday CT which is led by Pamela Moore Selders and Bishop John Selders. Jesse Turner, CCSU Professor, also contributed to organization of the event. I’m sorry if I missed other collaborators! Thanks to Moral Monday CT for the forum. Thanks to the audience for sharing their stories and ideas.

Upcoming Event:

This Saturday, 11/17/18, the Sheff Movement will host a conversation on school desegregation entitled, “Integration Matters.” The panel and discussion starts at 10 a.m. and goes until noon. Join us at the 75 Charter Oak Avenue. RSVP here because space is limited.

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.

What is the Robinson et al case and why do its supporters want to end school desegregation and civil rights policies in Connecticut?

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Source: Sheff plaintiffs memo, 2018.

Over the last few days, I have discussed a number of aspects of the State of Connecticut’s efforts to racially desegregate schools. In short, the State uses voluntary school choice programs, such as magnet schools to create racially diverse educational settings. But over the past several years, a number of groups have launched a campaign against school desegregation. This post will break down the new Robinson case attempting to undo the civil rights gains made by the Sheff v. O’Neill case.

Earlier this year, parents that reside in Hartford, CT filed a federal lawsuit against the State of CT and Hartford Public Schools claiming that the State’s magnet lottery and reduced isolation definition were racially discriminatory and violated the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The parents and their lawyers allege that because their children have not been accepted to any of the State’s magnet schools, the State has discriminated against their children. To be clear, these are allegations and there is no actual evidence of racial discrimination in the documents, only a certain interpretation of State law. The parents are represented by the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation that works to protect, “private property,” “economic liberty,” and “individual rights” (990 tax form).

This Robinson et al v. Wentzell case has been a focal point in the discussion about the State’s effort to desegregate schools. Through their lawyers, they are asking the federal court to stop the State magnet school lottery as currently designed and stop the use of a definition of reduced isolation used to deem magnet schools racially diverse or not. In other words, the Robinson case seeks to ultimately end the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation remedy as we currently know it in Hartford, Connecticut.

In response, the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation state case filed a motion to intervene in the Robinson federal case. Basically, the Sheff plaintiffs want to intervene because the Robinson case, poorly handled, could gravely impact the Sheff lawsuit. Also, the Sheff team believes that the State is a poor defendant of school desegregation remedies given that Governor and Legislature do not and did not want school desegregation in 1996 or in 2018.

The Sheff plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is a wing of the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S. that defends educational, economic, and racial justice (990 tax form). The Sheff plaintiffs argue that the Robinson case should be dismissed based on many incorrect facts and poor interpretation of the law. Furthermore, the Sheff plaintiffs believe that some of the issues raised in the Robinson case should be resolved in the Connecticut court in February 2019 when it takes up the State’s failure to comply.

Here it’s important to separate the people from the goals and arguments. As far as I can tell, the parents in the Robinson case are sincere in their concern for their children. They also show concern that magnet schools have limited enrollment. They aren’t alone in feeling frustration with the State’s efforts to deliver equal educational opportunity in all schools in Hartford and elsewhere.

However, the Sheff lawyers make a strong argument that the Robinson case argument is wrong on the facts and the law. The lottery for magnet schools is race-neutral and the State defines a racially diverse school through a benchmark rather than direct mandates or limits of students of any particular race. These facts about the system make sure that the State develops racially diverse schools to counteract the effects of school and residential segregation without specifically using racial categories to make that happen. There are no “racial quotas” and children aren’t being denied magnet school enrollment on the basis of race.

So if the magnet lottery is race-neutral and the State only has a benchmark for racially diverse schools, then why is the Robinson group suing the State in federal court over the magnet system?

In the past, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) that represents the Robinson parents has promoted charter schools and the elimination of school desegregation orders that are “race-conscious.” The PLF group has submitted court briefs defending private charter schools use of public facilities in California and other states and it was heavily involved in dismantling school desegregation in places likes Seattle in the Parents Involved case, for example (Sandberg, 2011).

In addition, the CT Parent Union has facilitated Pacific Legal Foundation’s work in Connecticut over the past weeks. In the past, the CT Parent Union has lobbied for a “parent trigger” bill that would allow parents to vote to turn their school into a charter or other privately-managed school.

As the New Haven Independent recently reported, Pacific Legal Foundation is still trying to find other clients beside the Robinson group to help them dismantle school desegregation in Connecticut. As the Independent reported, Pacific Legal wants to find parents in New Haven, ‘”in order to file a suit that could bring down the entire magnet program statewide.” According to the article, CT Parent Union is assisting that effort.

As a side note, it is helpful to look at where these organizations get revenue using public tax form data. It’s unclear where Pacific Legal Foundation gets its funding, but there are some hints that their money from corporations and foundation related to fossil fuel industries, plus other big businesses (No sources listed on 990 tax form). Similarly, it’s unclear how CT Parent Union is funded (no 990 tax form, might not be a 501(c)3 non-profit). The NAACP Legal Defense funds primarily obtains revenue through fundraising, investments, and grants from other civil rights organization. (990 tax form, 2017). The Shelf Movement is a 501(c)3, but does not yet have a 990 tax form.

So how does the Robinson case fit into the Pacific Legal Foundation and CT Parent Union agenda?

The Shelf plaintiffs have advocated  “race-conscious” school choice policies as a means towards numerical school desegregation. Or, put another way, Sheff plaintiffs have advocated for school choice as a means towards a broader societal goal of racial integration. On the other hand, both Pacific Legal Foundation and CT Parent Union advocate for “school choice” as a goal by itself. They believe in “colorblind” choice that doesn’t specifically promote school diversity.  The Robinson case would not require or guarantee the State to place more students in racially diverse magnet schools, but it could open the door for more charter schools, the “colorblind” version of school choice that PLF and CPU like more.

So, here’s a hypothesis.

In Hartford, the Sheff case has used magnet schools as a way towards voluntary school desegregation. Connecticut’s magnet schools are racially diverse through a regional lottery, funding incentives and supports, plus their regional design. Diverse magnet schools in Hartford have thwarted racially segregated and privately-managed charter school growth in the city.

These privately-managed charter schools have grown in Hartford, but not as fast as in places such as New Haven and Bridgeport that do not have a court-ordered desegregation plans. Today, nearly all of the publicly-funded, privately-managed charter schools in Connecticut are racially segregated, lacking the rules and standards for racial diversity used as benchmarks for magnet schools.

If the Robinson case can dismantle the regional magnet school lottery and the reduced isolation definition in Hartford and New Haven, then that paves the way for more “school choice” without racial equity and other safeguards (UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010). Down the road, that could mean more charter schools in Hartford. In other words, if the State doesn’t have to keep making racially diverse magnet schools in Hartford because of the Sheff remedies, then it would be free to open more racially-segregated, privately-managed charter schools.

Labor rules and public funds are in the background, but important issues too. Magnet schools are public schools that also have unionized teachers. Charter schools typically do not have unionized staff and teachers. Pacific Legal loves charter schools and is not too fond of unionized employees. For example, PLF submitted a supporting brief to undermine unions and working people in the Janus case. Without teachers unions and the same stringent rules for spending public funds as magnet and public schools, there is money to be made in segregated, privately-managed charter schools in a way that is not possible in public schools.

And, while it could just be a coincidence, it’s important to note that one of the plaintiffs in the Robinson case was a founding member of the Board of Directors for a charter school in Hartford that attempted to obtain state approval last year. The State of Connecticut rejected the application, for now (See the Community First Charter School Application to CT SDE, 2017).

This Robinson case is not happening in isolation. There is a broader campaign to dismantle school desegregation in Connecticut that has been brewing for a number of years. To be sure, this campaign exploits frustration by parents with poor implementation of school desegregation by the State of Connecticut and counter-productive education reforms over the last decade. Next, we will take a look at this campaign.

Views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Trinity College.