By Chris Lagoni and Terri Spradlin
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 believe that local control should prevail. From our perspective, there is nothing wrong with school consolidation or reorganization if it is initiated by the people in the communities affected.
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 policy of student-based funding has fueled the creation of more charter schools and private schools, both with student enrollments smaller than even our smallest school corporations. 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. 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 to any Indiana public college or university) or an associate degree while still in high school. Many Indiana small and rural high schools are leaders in Career and Technical Education programming, including online course offerings, even though they do not have access to large vocational high schools. 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.
Nearly every year schools in rural areas close because of declining population. But Indiana’s school choice policies have allowed many of these schools to immediately re-open as charter schools, negating the savings for taxpayers. Parents wanted the convenience of the school that was closest to their home and did not want their local schools to close. That is clear. Any conversation about school consolidation that does not also attempt to reconcile Indiana’s school choice policies only considers half the issue.
If the impetus for change is to create larger high schools with more robust curricular offerings, the proposed solution to consolidate just the district offices misses the mark. Eliminating a superintendent position or a few positions in a central office does not make a bigger high school with more robust course offerings. While central office staff reductions may result in savings, they may very well be offset by the new larger school corporation adding central office positions to help 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. Schools are the largest employer in many small towns and rural communities, and the elimination of the good-paying, essential jobs that small schools provide could cripple the local economy. Parents choose small schools for their children because they value safety, smaller class sizes, and low 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 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 planning 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/or planning for a future building could also impact tax rates. About 10 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. Elimination of debt obligations would help facilitate additional consolidations.
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.
Chris Lagoni is executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, and Terry Spradlin is executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.