Gov. Pat Quinn recently floated idea of combining the state's 868 diffuse school districts into 300 larger districts to help close the state's $13 billion budget gap. Rep. Robert Rita, a Democrat from Blue Island, filed a bill to abolish districts altogether, moving school management to the county level. Both leaders want to save money, but the problem is that consolidation into larger districts won't pay hoped-for dividends — either fiscally or academically. If the governor and legislature want to save billions and galvanize school reform, they shouldn't consolidate school districts, they should eliminate them.
Eliminating school districts and adopting a system of school-based budgeting would empower principals and greatly diminish the influence of central office bureaucrats. Management guru William Ouchi documented in his 2003 book "Making Schools Work" how granting principals greater autonomy and holding them accountable for results reaped huge dividends at schools in Los Angeles, Houston and New York City. The research shows that focusing on student outcomes is the key to real reform. Eliminating districts and splitting administrative functions among other entities (counties, state and schools) will allow for dramatic spending cuts without risking student outcomes.
Such an undertaking would have to be done as a process, not in one single step. Certain functions, like purchasing or transportation, could be assigned to the existing county infrastructure, with academic standards set at the state level. Empower each school with the maximum leeway to meet those standards.
With about 35 percent of education dollars falling outside the classroom, eliminating districts could save billions. Think about it. Lower property taxes, empowered and accountable principals and teachers and better student outcomes — all made possible by eliminating school districts.
The Heartland Institute's Center for School Reform.
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