School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: an Evaluation

In August, several newspapers around the state headlined a new Michigan State University study claiming taxpayers could save $612 million by combining school districts. Editorial boards opined on the topic for weeks. There was only one problem: The MSU report was completely erroneous.

The study, authored by MSU Education Policy Center senior scholar Sharif Shakrani, appears to have contained a significant amount of plagiarized material. While reading the study, Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek discovered that entire paragraphs in the report were near-verbatim matches of text from other sources, and that only one source was cited at all. MSU says it's investigating.

If that weren't bad enough, Van Beek found that the study's methodology was haphazard and overly simplistic. It used results from a study of 12 district consolidations in rural New York and applied those findings to the entire state of Michigan. One author of the original New York study called this attempt "extremely naïve."

Aside from these serious problems, the report's savings predictions are still exaggerated. Although the author states that charter public schools shouldn't be part of the consolidation debate, with his calculations included charter spending. The study also failed to consider capital costs, which usually increase after districts consolidate.

Since Van Beek pointed out the apparent plagiarism, two different versions of the study have reappeared on MSU's website, both of which tried to add some of the missing citations. But the study's author dismissed the problems, telling Michigan Capitol Confidential: "This is for the newspapers. It is not for scholarly publication."

Studies can influence public policy, regardless of who writes or publishes them. Fortunately, groups like the Mackinac Center help keep poorly conceived and sloppily researched studies out of the debate.

For a more comprehensive look at the issue, see "School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: an Evaluation," a 2007 study by Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and a Mackinac Center adjunct fellow.