The Kansas Supreme Court decision that funding of Kansas schools is inadequate poses a difficult problem for Kansas legislators. The ruling noted that funding was related to students’ academic success and they took aim at schools that were not adequately serving students in academics.
But one solution has been around for 15 years. And it addresses both the cost of K-12 education in Kansas and also the quality of our students’ education. That solution is school consolidation.
There have been three Kansas consolidation plans proposed.
A 2002 Legislature-commissioned study from Augenblick and Myers found Kansas has one percent of the nation’s pupils, 1.6 percent of the nations’s schools and 2.1 percent of the nation’s school districts.
While most states genuinely consolidated their schools long ago, Kansas barely went half way. The study found a few districts too large, but 50 school districts that were far too small. Kansas had 303 USDs at that time. They recommended dropping the number of Kansas districts to either 284 or 255.
At that same time, two Kansas superintendents proposed a model, similar to our regional hospitals and clinics, to consolidate many districts into a few regional school districts, perhaps as few as 50. In both cases, a Kansas student would not ride a bus to school over an hour. But neither plan was adopted by the Legislature.
A February 2010 Kansas Legislative Post Audit again reported the “economic efficiencies” that could be gained by school consolidation. And again the plan was shelved.
This time the Legislature is under pressure to increase both monetary support in Base State Aid Per Pupil and to improve academics. School consolidation addresses both.
The major expense in education is in the salaries of teachers and staff. Education Week just released a study of average salaries of public school teachers. Only 8 states out of 50 pay teachers lower than Kansas, one factor contributing to our rapidly growing teacher shortage. There is even a shortage of substitute teachers and “long term subs.”
Kansas has many counties with several small rural school districts where there is no chemistry or physics or foreign language teachers. Some use less-than-inspiring online programs. Others have a math teacher teach physics out-of-field. Of the 700-plus biology teachers in the state, I estimate that less than 500 are actually competent to teach biology. Teachers who add a biology endorsement for merely taking a biology test-out lack the actual college course with laboratory experience are unlikely to understand and teach accurate biology that is exciting to students.
Many Kansas counties have a bigger city-based school district and one or more rural satellite districts. Those rural districts are more likely to have out-of-field teachers or full time subs “teaching” courses. Rural schools have smaller class sizes but less lab equipment. Merging small USDs with a central regional district eliminates duplication of administrations and would put all high school students under qualified teachers. Nearly all elementary and middle school buildings would remain where they are. Secondary students would ride further to the larger high school.
The three proposed school consolidation plans focused on financial savings by removing administrative duplication. However, consolidation not only increases the number of students under a qualified teacher, but ends the inefficiencies of small high schools that graduate less than 20 students a year. By statute, schools that consolidate get to keep their higher pre-consolidation funding for several years. Intended as an incentive to consolidate, this ironically also prevents any immediate savings.
Rural Kansas continues to de-populate, losing 800 - 1,000 small farms a year. We have seen the gradual forced consolidation of small rural school districts by bankruptcy, from 303 to 286 USDs. The resulting gerrymandered districts lack the logic—and savings—of a state plan.
I personally enjoy the atmosphere of small rural schools. When I arrive to visit a student teacher, the school has the atmosphere of a family working together—quite in contrast to some large school factories.
Local school boards and communities do not want to lose their small high school. We often see that when the high school is closed, a small rural town suffers.
But to provide Kansas students with quality teachers and a quality education today, a major statewide school consolidation is the only solution that addresses our financial crisis, the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, and the academic needs of Kansas students.