The concept of consolidating school districts in New Jersey seems to incite either enthusiasm or vitriol. The efficiency-obsessed policy wonks wax eloquent over potential reduction of costs and redundancy of services. The home rule aficionados bear testimony to the charm of small town governance and the State’s ineptitude to run anything, let alone public education. But we’re one of fifty states in the Union. How do other states resolve this issue?
Funny you should ask.
Right across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, another state that loves its home rule – it has 501 school districts, not too far behind our 616 — Governor Ed Rendell has announced plans to consolidate.
The Morning Star reports that,
If the measure goes through, it would be the first state-forced consolidation since 1962, when the number of school districts went from 1,900 to 600. It could reduce the number of districts to one or two per county — Lehigh and Northampton counties together have 17.
”We just don’t need that many school districts, and more importantly, in today’s economy we cannot afford them,” Rendell said in his budget address Wednesday before a joint session of the state House and Senate. He also proposed increasing basic education funding by an average 5.7 percent to an estimated $5.9 billion.
Rendell is not just tossing around numbers. In 2007 Standard and Poors did a study of school mergers for the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, looking at 88 districts with fewer than 3000 pupils. Continues the Star,
The study concluded that a merger between Weatherly and the nearby Jim Thorpe Area School District could save as much as $2.5 million a year, based on their 2004 spending levels. Pairing 34 districts could save $81 million, it said.
Of course, protest has come from predictable quarters: the Pennsylvania teachers union (PSEA), suburban districts, the state school board association. Just as in Jersey, residents and representatives of well-to-do towns are fighting to keep the status quo. The Bucks County Courier Times quotes a school board member from Pennsbury:
But my number one concern is the quality of education for Pennsbury students and the cost to taxpayers, especially as we approach some very, very difficult financial times.
Translation: I’m elected to protect the kids in my backyard and we’re doing just fine; what possible incentive could there be for us in Pennsbury to merge with lower-achieving districts?
The conversation in Pennsylvania, however, does seem a little more nuanced, and at least Rendell is willing to come right out and talk about it. (Note to Governor Corzine: don’t worry so much about offending NJEA.) Why don’t we take it a step further by consolidating services with PA and studying the question together? Sure, we’re different states, but the issues are largely similar. There’s a little efficiency for you.