Fallacies of the School District Consolidation Debate in Indiana
By Chris Lagoni, Executive Director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, and Terry Spradlin, Executive Director of the Indiana School Boards Association
Consolidation of Indiana school districts has resurfaced as a topic in policy discussions because of the release of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s Indiana Prosperity 2035 Plan. Not all agree with this proposal. The Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association stand united in opposition to this agenda item, and we offer a different policy approach.
Previous reviews of the topic have failed to consider key aspects of Indiana’s school funding and policy landscape. These fallacies continue in the current policy debate. We have been repeatedly told that Indiana is a state that funds students, not schools. Indiana funds students to attend a variety of schools, including small private schools, small charter schools, and small public schools. For certain, Indiana’s funding follows the student policy approach, which has led to the creation of more charter schools and private schools, both with student enrollment smaller than even our smallest school corporations while being supported by tax dollars since 2010 (when the Indiana Choice Scholarship voucher program was created). Today, there are approximately 105 charter schools in the state with an average student enrollment of 436 students. Conversely, there are only five school corporations in the state with enrollment below five hundred students. We also now have career and technical education funding, known as Career Scholarship Accounts, to fund employer-based training and personal career coaching to students, and special education funding via Education Savings Accounts to fund businesses, therapies, and a whole myriad of expenses too numerous to list. The policy point is that Indiana’s approach is to have the state carry more and more varied and individual expenses for education, not to consolidate them.
Indiana’s small and rural school corporations currently operate thirty-two early college high schools that enable students to complete the Indiana College Core (30 college credit hours transferable at any Indiana college or university) or an associate degree while still in high school. In the Bloomfield School District for example, Mrs. Bri Karazsia is an extraordinary high school teacher who has completed multiple certifications/licenses to teach up to eight dual credit or AP classes in four different content areas (English composition/literature, humanities/theater, History, and public speaking/communications). There are several inspiring stories like hers of educators going the extra mile to enable advanced learning opportunities for students in small schools.
The Indiana Department of Education just issued its Computer Science report, noting that 94% of rural high schools offer foundational computer science programs. Many Indiana small and rural high schools are leaders in Career and Technical Education programming even though they do not have access to large vocational high schools. Indiana’s investment in Broadband provides access to thousands of online and robust course offerings to Indiana students from Indiana colleges and other colleges nationwide. It is not perfect, but Indiana’s small and rural schools strive to deliver a robust curriculum with Dual Credit, Advanced Placement, and career education opportunities.
Over the last 13 years, several school buildings in rural areas have closed because of declining population. School districts have made the difficult choice to close school buildings to save money and right-size their districts based on enrollment. Indiana’s school choice policies also allowed those schools to re-open as charter schools immediately. Any savings for taxpayers were not realized, but Indiana’s policy focus on more school choice has expanded. The school districts did not see any of its remaining buildings grow larger in enrollment. The high schools in these districts did not grow to add any additional advanced courses. A conversation about school consolidation that does not also attempt to reconcile Indiana’s school choice policies only considers half the issue. Parents wanted the convenience of the school that was closest to their home. That is clear. People also did not want their local schools to close.
From our perspective, there is nothing wrong with school consolidation or re-organization if it is initiated by the people in the community affected. Local control should prevail. The current discussions on this topic miss the target because the impetus for change is to create larger high schools with more robust curricular offerings. Yet the policy idea proposed is to consolidate just the district offices. Eliminating a superintendent position or a few positions in a central office does not make a high school with more robust course offerings bigger. Central office staff reductions would be a marginal one-time savings, and likely to be offset by the new larger school corporation adding central office positions to help its superintendent manage more schools and educational programs for more students.
Perhaps the idea of consolidation is simply flawed altogether. Central to any effective economic development initiative is a goal to attract employers and jobs that are high-wage and high demand. Counter to this philosophy, the Chamber wants to eliminate the largest employer in many small towns and rural communities and the good-paying, essential jobs provided by our small school districts. Parents who reside in these communities choose this school option for their children, perhaps for reasons like quality of life, safety, smaller class sizes, lower taxes, or they identify with the school community as the anchor institution of their community. These are close-knit communities where parents and staff know one another personally. If their school district is eliminated, and school closures ensue, these communities suffer.
Let us offer alternatives that the Indiana General Assembly could implement to help communities. First, provide state grants for planning or feasibility studies for school districts and communities wanting to examine consolidation. The last time Indiana provided small grants from the Indiana Department of Education, there was a consolidation of two school districts (Turkey Run and Rockville into North Parke).
Secondly, one of the significant reasons these discussions have fallen apart in the past has been the effect the consolidation will have on local tax rates. Consolidation of districts may impose a higher tax rate on some residents of the new district. In addition, closing a building, expanding another, adding miles of bus routes, and planning for a future building could also impact tax rates. About ten years ago, the Indiana General Assembly forgave $92 million dollars in charter school debt for closed schools. A similar approach could be taken to help communities wanting to consolidate. School districts carry debt, and another community may not want to inherit the duty of paying for debt obligations previously incurred. If Indiana can pay $92 million in debt relief to push forward its policy of creating more school choice, surely it can appropriate a similar amount to help consolidate schools for communities that are willing to do so.
Our belief is that consolidations should remain a local decision. Any state mandate forcing consolidation would be contrary to all other school choice policies because it pushes less school choice for rural communities. This is why any conversation about school consolidation must also be part of the school choice policy conversation if one is needed at all.