Governor John Kitzhaber recently announced plans to consolidate control over all levels of education, from pre-Kindergarten through college, in a single board that he would chair. Earlier he proposed consolidating school districts and Educational Service Districts as a way to generate cost savings to taxpayers.
Such efforts have already been tried, however, and failed. Starting before Kitzhaber became governor the first time, while he was Senate President, the legislature mandated a reduction in the number of school districts, hoping to see cost savings. Between 1992 and 2001 the number of districts fell from 277 to 198.
At the end of the process there actually were more central office staff per pupil than at the beginning. If lawmakers had read the academic literature on the subject, they would have known that simply consolidating a bunch of monopoly districts was unlikely to reduce staff or costs.
Why? Because “consolidation sucks power upward and away from parents and students into top down, centralized and inflexible political arrangements, where unions and other special interests have more political clout. This causes accountability to decline and results in higher per pupil costs and lower educational results” (John T. Wenders, Ph.D., “Deconsolidate Oregon’s School Districts,” Cascade Policy Institute, March 2005)
So, before reliving the mistakes of the past, the governor and legislators might do well to consider what truly will reduce costs and improve educational outcomes—competition. When students and parents are free to choose their schools, with money following the students, power is sucked down into consumer hands where it belongs—rather than up into bureaucratic pockets.
Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.