State Leadership in School District Reform: Lessons for Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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State Leadership in School District Reform: Lessons for Illinois

Other states’ policies demonstrate a path forward in the Land of Lincoln

Flickr user Daniel Mennerich (CC)

The Vermont State House, where legislators passed Act 46, a school district reorganization law

The Better Government Association noted that Illinois has the third most school districts in the nation, right behind the 1,029 in California and the 941 in Texas, states that have more than double Illinois’ population. Previously, MPC highlighted the need for greater efficiency in administrative expenditures across the state and how that could address some of the school funding woes in the short term.

When approached from the state level, these are major reforms that require large-scale coordination. Fragmentation of school districts is an issue affecting many areas of the country, with no defined solution for states. To explore options for Illinois, let’s look at how two other states have attempted to address the issue.

Vermont: Financial incentives to encourage school district reorganization

Vermont has faced a shrinking K-12 student population, declining 14% since 2000. Diminished enrollment, combined with existing fixed costs, led to Vermont suffering the fourth highest per pupil cost in the United States ($18,769 per year). With no sign of enrollment trends reversing, the state needed to take action.

In 2015, the Vermont legislature passed Act 46, a school district reorganization law, with the goal of creating K-12 districts serving at least 900 students. It provided districts financial incentives to voluntarily merge with other districts within a three-year window. Those that did not were required to submit proposals to the state as to why their district should remain as is, but risked a state-mandated merger if their proposal was not approved.

Act 46 is the biggest reform to Vermont’s education system in over a century, affecting nearly 2/3 of the state’s student population.

By the end of the voluntary consolidation period, 157 of the state’s school districts had consolidated into 39. After receiving the proposals from the remaining districts, the State Board of Education decided to merge 45 districts into 11 unified districts and permitted 47 districts to maintain their current structure.

Act 46 is the biggest reform to Vermont’s education system in over a century, affecting nearly 2/3 of the state’s student population. The legislation has led to 202 school districts merging into 50, a reduction of approximately 75%.

The reorganization has received a mixed reception from residents. Some favored the increased opportunities from the economies of scale created by larger districts. Others lamented the loss of community, history, and autonomy that accompany major changes to school districts.

While the voluntary consolidation period and state board mandates are complete, it is unlikely that the reorganization is finalized. Multiple school districts are in varying stages of litigation against the state to contest their mandated mergers, with some joining a class-action suit and others suing independently.

Oklahoma: Instituting budget limits on school district expenses

Oklahoma’s 512 school districts serve an average of 1,350 students, which is only 37% of the national average for district enrollment.

Oklahoma’s 512 school districts serve an average of 1,350 students, which is only 37% of the national average for district enrollment. To address this, Governor Mary Fallin issued an executive order in November 2017 to “strengthen public confidence in the efficient use of state education dollars” that targeted specific districts. Guidelines applied to districts that spent less than 60% on instructional activities, which affected approximately 91% of the districts in the state. Districts were given two years to submit a proposal for how they would consolidate administrative costs with another district.

This decision faced fierce opposition from education advocates across the state. They argued essential services, like teacher assistants, counselors, and school nurses, are often categorized as administrative costs and could be eliminated if the state carried out the order. These opponents cited the U.S. Census Bureau Public Education Finances report that found, when factoring for costs of principals and other support staff, Oklahoma spent less on administration than every comparable state except Utah. As a result, the State Superintendent and the Department of Education refused to enforce the executive order, arguing the definition of “instructional expenditures” is too vague and the order does not respect local districts decisions on how to allocate funds. With Governor Fallin’s term ending, the reorganization efforts seem to have stalled and its future is unclear.

Lessons from reorganization in Vermont and Oklahoma

While Vermont and Oklahoma are very different from Illinois, both in terms of student population size and demographics, their district reorganization efforts provide some lessons:

First, states must provide financial resources for districts to explore and solicitation of input, and that requires funding. By providing financial incentives, Vermont got 76% of their consolidated districts to reorganize voluntarily.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) already provides districts up to $12,500 through school district reorganization feasibility study funding to study the costs and benefits of a proposed reorganization. However, since 2002, less than one-third of the districts in Illinois have conducted a reorganization study and only 60 have engaged in any sort of reorganization.

Secondly, the different outcomes for Vermont and Oklahoma provide a lesson on the importance of a legislative solution as opposed to an executive order. School district reorganization is a challenge for any community, but the school districts of Vermont embraced it much more enthusiastically than Oklahoma’s districts. In part, this may be attributed to state legislators being responsive to the needs of their constituents and putting together a more nuanced solution than an executive order.

Finally, Illinois must remember that a reduction in administrative expenses is not the sole requirement for improving district effectiveness. Many Vermont residents expressed excitement from the consolidation of their district because it expanded student academic and extracurricular opportunities. Conversely, many Oklahoman school administrators lamented the potential removal of “administrative costs” such as counselors and teacher’s aides. The main priority of public education is to promote student achievement and prepare for their future success, not to reduce costs above all else.

In these two cases, leadership from the legislature transformed school districts more effectively than executive action from the Governor. Political resistance to change was center stage in both of these cases, but collective decisionmaking set Vermont on the path of change. When the Vermont legislature acted as a whole, voluntary changes were made with some resistance from less willing communities. When Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin issued the executive order the transformation agenda stalled. 

These two states have demonstrated possible methods for school district reorganization. Policymakers and elected officials must continue following the district reorganization efforts keeping the Vermont and Oklahoma examples in mind. Collective vision from our legislature demonstrates a potential path forward for Illinois in ensuring our school districts are as effective as possible.

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