OKLAHOMA CITY – In response to Gov. Mary Fallin’s call for a debate about the structure of Oklahoma’s school systems, House Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Hickman and Ringwood Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tom Deighan presented an interim study on the issue to the House Common Education Committee last week.
Hickman, who requested the study, came away with a number of concerns and ideas.
“Governor Fallin said this summer that it was time to have a debate about the structure of our school systems, so I decided to ask ‘How do we restructure?’ or ‘Do we restructure?’ now rather than waiting until another busy legislative session begins,” said Hickman (R-Fairview). “Our interim study raised serious doubts about whether widespread consolidation is even necessary, and if it is, to what extent. Most committee members felt that deregulating all districts and splitting up large, struggling urban districts is a better route.”
Oklahoma currently has 523 school districts, ranging from urban school districts serving large student bodies from small geographic areas to rural school districts serving smaller student bodies from vast geographic areas. More than 75 percent of Oklahoma school districts have fewer than 1,000 students and more than half have less than 500 students, Deighan told the committee. Those smaller, rural districts are often pointed to as targets for consolidation.
“I’m a little bit frustrated that school consolidation always seems to be a rural issue,” Rep. Doug Cox, M.D. (R-Grove), said during last week’s interim study hearing.
Cox, a member of the Common Education Committee, added: “In my mind, our rural schools are not where the problem is. Those kids come out with the best work ethic. Those kids in rural schools come out with respect for authority. They are taught to say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, ma’am.’ The problems are urban schools, and yet when you talk about consolidation, it is always rural.”
Hickman said consolidation isn’t as simple as it sounds.
“The issue of restructuring school districts is complicated, and in Oklahoma, due to our geography, is even more complex,” said Hickman. “Most consolidation advocates believe you just do it based on enrollment and pick the magic number of students a district must have to remain open. That simple approach just doesn’t work when you have districts like Freedom that covers 500 square miles but only has 75 students K through 12. Where are you going to take those students, who already ride an hour and a half one-way on a bus to get to school, if you close the school at Freedom?”
If policymakers do decide to restructure school districts, Hickman said they might start by reviewing the 104 dependent school districts that only offer classes through eighth grade before sending students to a neighboring high school while keeping all the property tax money within their district for the K-8 school.
Deighan said the average dependent school district only serves 1/7th of the students of independent districts, and only covers 1/3rd of the area. Keeping those sites open but moving them under the umbrella of a neighboring independent district as an elementary or junior high school would leverage purchasing savings and reduce administrative costs. Hickman said that would reduce the number of school districts in Oklahoma by 20 percent without closing the door on a single student.
“Beyond folding the dependents into an independent district, when you analyze the data on Oklahoma schools, you quickly find that it is difficult to develop criteria for consolidation,” Hickman said. “Would we want to close a school that is doing an outstanding job just because they fall under a minimum number of students that we identify out of thin air? I hope not.”
Solely as a means of spurring committee discussion, hypothetical criteria on district consolidation was presented at last week’s interim study hearing. Using that hypothetical criteria of less than 250 students, serving less than 200 square miles, receiving state aid of at least $200,000, and having an average composite ACT score below the state average or unreported, only 32 of Oklahoma’s 523 school districts would be identified for consolidation.
“That’s such a small percentage of districts and there are serious doubts about whether such a consolidation would even be worthwhile. It may create more problems than it solves,” Hickman said. “Deregulation seems a more logical path than blanket consolidation.”
As a school superintendent, Deighan said he appreciated recent efforts by some legislators to deregulate districts even though major deregulation legislation has failed to be signed into law.
“You let schools like mine or any other school in the state live under the same rules as a charter school, and give us the bar and tell us to reach it, and hold us accountable, and you’ll see amazing things happen in this state,” Deighan said. “In our area, students come and go freely. Superintendents have a great relationship with the boards. We allow transfers. If the kid doesn’t want to be in our district, we want them to go where they’re happy.”
During last week’s interim study hearing, Common Education Committee member Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) asked: “Would it be premature to start a program of consolidation or redistricting without trying these other options such as deregulation and easier inter-district school choice? Should those come first? Letting the parents make the decisions and drive that through greater inter-district public school choice would help sort it out instead of imposing something on a town or school district.”
Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, wrote this summer that focusing entirely on consolidation may be missing the goal of giving parents more opportunities for the best education possible for their children.
“Indeed, historian Bob Blackburn has a point when he says of consolidation that the idea of giving up control over your school district in your local community is not the conservative way,” wrote Dutcher in August.
During last week’s interim study, some Common Education Committee members questioned whether the discussion should be about more school districts in Oklahoma instead of less.
“Wouldn’t it make a little more sense rather than looking at some of the smaller schools that spend the least amount of money and do some of the better jobs to look at the two larger districts that do the worst job in terms of education in several areas, and spend the most amount of money, and deconsolidate Oklahoma City and Tulsa schools to make three or four good school systems out of one that continually and perennially causes headaches for the Legislature?” asked Rep. Gus Blackwell (R-Laverne), member of the Common Education Committee.
According to an analysis of State Department of Education data by the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools, 11 of the top 20 schools with the highest ACT scores in the state are in districts serving less than 500 students. Graduation rates in districts under 500 students are significantly higher than in larger districts – seven percent higher overall and 21 percent higher than the largest districts in the state. Non-instructional costs in Oklahoma’s smallest schools are $266.69 less per pupil than in the largest schools.
Maintaining access in all corners of the state while reducing overhead costs is also an issue in higher education. In an interview this summer, former state legislator and Oklahoma Gov. David L. Boren, now president of The University of Oklahoma, was asked if Oklahoma had too many school districts and too many college campuses. Boren said the answer is potentially yes to both.
“You’ve got to take in consideration such things as distance,” Boren said in the interview with former Oklahoma Watchdog Editor Peter J. Rudy. “If you’ve got five school districts all within five or six or eight miles of each other, that’s one situation that probably shouldn’t exist. If you go out west and you’ve got a school district that may be graduating 10 from the high school but they’re 50 miles away, it is hard to say that there’s a hard-and-fast rule as to where they should be. I think the key is sharing overhead costs. In higher education, you may want delivery points to remain in certain places, but at least you could do away with some additional administrative overhead by bringing them together in some kind of partnerships.”
Hickman said education discussions should focus first on quality.
“Ultimately, it’s not about how many schools we have in Oklahoma. It’s about the job they’re doing,” Hickman said. “Who cares how many districts we have if they’re performing well? If you consolidate a poorly performing school district with another poorly performing district, all you get is a bigger poorly performing school district. Does the number of districts matter as much as the performance? The answer is no.”