The governor says Kansas should boost education spending by $600 million over the next five years. But another major tax hike would be politically difficult. In fact, the governor has ruled it out. Commentator John Richard Schrock says there's another idea the governor and the Legislature should consider: school consolidation.
School Funding and School Consolidation
School consolidation. It's not a new idea. And it is controversial.
After World War II, the Kansas Legislature forced consolidation of school districts in an attempt to provide equity in financing. They merged more than 8,000 elementary school districts into fewer than 5,000 before that law was ruled unconstitutional in 1947.
The 1950s and 60s ushered in major school consolidation nationwide. Most other states eliminated one and two-room schools and truly consolidated. Usually the elementary schools were “hubbed” around central high schools. Kansas moved in this direction too, but went less than half-way.
The state's first unification law was in 1963. Each county formed a planning commission. Johnson County got two commissions. Instructions were to form one or more school districts per county, each with 200 or more square miles of territory and at least $2 million in assessed property valuation. A statewide vote approved the recommendation of 311 unified schools districts or “USDs.” (At the same time, the position of State Superintendent was eliminated and our current 10-member elected State Board of Education was created. The State Board in turn hires the Education Commissioner.)
In 2002, the Kansas Legislature commissioned a study from Augenblick and Myers that found Kansas had 1 percent of the nation’s pupils but more than 2 percent of the nation’s school districts. In other words, on average, Kansas was less than half as consolidated as the rest of the country.
During this time, two Kansas superintendents proposed using a central hub model similar to small town clinics that feed into regional hospitals. That plan would consolidate all districts into 40 regional school districts. Most elementary schools would remain local. But many secondary students would change buses and ride on to the fewer central high schools. Total bus time would always be less than an hour. But this proposal went nowhere.
More recent legislative proposals would only consolidate central school offices—in order to save money—and left all buildings intact. None of these proposals were adopted by the Kansas Legislature.
There was a spate of school consolidations—from 303 to 286—a decade ago. But the rural population continues to shrink.
Today there are school districts with less than 100 students K-through-12.
That is less than ten students graduating each year.
That is too small to provide licensed math, science and English teachers, and a full high school curriculum.
That is too small to provide the additional counselors that the Governor requests.
And it is these small rural schools that are impacted most by the rapidly growing teacher shortage.
Rural schools have much smaller classes. Consolidating schools will allow our smaller pool of qualified teachers to teach more students.
I am looking at the academic reasons why rural schools need to be consolidated. The Legislature is looking at the difficulty of raising $600 million more in taxes. Fifty-one percent of state taxes already goes to education. And most of that goes towards salaries.
This is where coordinated school consolidation can ultimately reduce the cost of delivering an adequate education, reduce the teacher shortage, and improve the education delivered.
Yes, many small towns would lose their high schools....sooner...rather than later.
But completing the school consolidation that other states implemented in the 1960s can be a win-win for both student academics and Kansas taxpayers.