Reshuffling is not reform

Arizona Capital Times, June 13, 2008

This November, Arizona voters will decide whether 76 school districts should be combined into 27 larger, unified districts. Prompting the ballot initiative is the fact that fewer than six cents of every education dollar ever reaches the classroom. But don’t bank on statewide unification plans to increase classroom spending or improve student achievement in Arizona.

As the former national leader in school choice should know, absent localized incentives there is no guarantee that school districts will spend money in the classroom. Competition for students and their education dollars puts powerful and immediate pressure on schools to direct dollars to the classroom, raise teacher salaries, and improve productivity for every dollar spent without waiting for elusive administrative efficiencies to materialize and trickle down into the classroom.

Proponents claim, as they did four years ago when proposing a similar scheme, that combining school districts would cut administrative costs from 5 to 11 percent so savings could be redirected to the classroom. While the auditor general does find a strong correlation between district size and dollars spent in the classroom, a closer examination of the 2004 plan found that smaller districts perform as well or better than many of the state’s largest districts in terms of low administrative spending. Likewise today, more small and medium-sized districts rank among Arizona’s best classroom spenders than larger districts.

By expanding school-choice programs statewide in Arizona — as Florida, Ohio, and Georgia have done — public school productivity could improve up to 28 percent. Simply letting parents pick their children’s schools, including private schools as college students do, could yield the same math improvement as increasing per-pupil funding by more than $3,000 or raising median household income more than $7,000.

Compare those results to one-size-fits-all mandates on school district size or structure. Any fiscal savings from school district combination proposals likely would be negligible at best, about $17 per-pupil based on the 2004 Arizona plan. Even if that savings were realized, empirical evidence offered little reason to believe it would ever reach the classroom. There’s even less reason to think so today.

Since 2002, Arizona school districts have received around $1.7 billion from Proposition 301, Indian gaming, and other funds above and beyond annual general fund appropriations earmarked for the classroom. By law, districts must use that additional money to augment classroom spending. Trouble is, for all that extra money the state classroom dollar percentage barely budged in six years, increasing an infinitesimal 0.2 percent.

This pattern suggests to the auditor general that “districts are likely using Proposition 301 monies to supplant other district monies, which is a violation of Arizona Revised Statutes §15-977(A).” That is, instead of adding these funds to what they should be spending in the classroom anyway, districts are pulling money out of the classroom and replacing it with Proposition 301 funds — which is illegal.

At a minimum, Auditor General Audit Staff Director Ross Ehrick explains, “Districts are not maintaining adequate accounting records for Proposition 301 monies.” If districts directed their regular budgets toward the classroom today as they did in 2001 before voters approved Proposition 301, the auditor general calculates current teacher salaries would be more than $2,300 higher.

Elected officials should empower parents at the local level to choose schools they believe are the most fiscally and academically responsible. And instead of micromanaging schools, they should see to it that the law is actually followed.

An immediate investigation of all school districts suspected by the auditor general of violating classroom-targeted funding statutes would be a good start. Another would be requiring independent reviews by certified public accounting firms of schools’ budgets with particular attention on Proposition 301 and all other additional classroom-targeted funding.

As a condition for receiving future classroom-targeted funding, districts should be required to post their schools’ annual budgets and CPA audit results online in a uniform, comprehensible format.

It is possible that combining school districts could streamline administration and improve classroom instruction on a targeted, case-by-case basis. But reshuffling districts, putting them on auto-pilot, then hoping they fly right is not a comprehensive strategy for education reform.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is education studies senior policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. She is co-author of the 2004 Goldwater Institute study “Competition or Consolidation? The School District Consolidation Debate Revisited.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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