annual debate about school district consolidation is in full bloom. The debate
was sparked anew when a Michigan State University study claimed taxpayers would
save $612 million by consolidating Michigan's 551 school districts into 83
single-county districts. Three days later, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed
spending $50 million to "incentivize" districts to merge. While exploring
consolidation might be appropriate for some districts, Michigan won't save
hundreds of millions by merely reorganizing its $20 billion public school
What determines the bulk of Michigan schools’ costs are not lines on a map, but labor contracts signed by local school boards and unions.
The MSU study
is flawed in many ways, and policymakers should disregard it. Just for
starters, significant portions of the study appear to have been directly lifted
from other sources - a form of plagiarism that any college student would
recognize. MSU says it's investigating.
experts say that this type of flaw can compromise an entire study. Whether it
does or doesn't is of no matter in this case, because the MSU report's
methodology is also very problematic. Sharif Shakrani, author of the study and
senior scholar at MSU's Education Policy Center, wrote that his research "is
based and builds on" a 2001 working paper on consolidations in a dozen rural
New York districts between 1985 and 1997.
doesn't even attempt to explain why the results from 12 consolidations
more than 20 years ago in another state applies to Michigan. In fact, the
author simply took some of the findings from that study and applied them evenly
across all of Michigan, assuming that any set of districts, no matter their
geographical location, could merge. This methodology is haphazard, and one of
the coauthors of the original New York study agrees.
William Duncombe, associate director of the Education Finance and Accountability
Program at Syracuse University, said the MSU study was "not an appropriate use
of scientific evidence," and called this methodology "extremely naïve."
Duncombe's research finds that consolidation might only save money for
districts of less than 1,000 students, and that's why he concludes, "Blanket
attempts to consolidate just don't make any sense."
research aligns with a 2007 analysis on school district consolidation done by
Andrew Coulson, an adjunct fellow with the Mackinac Center. Coulson's study
found that consolidating could hypothetically create savings for small
districts, but the statewide impact would be extremely small. In fact,
counter-intuitive to this entire discussion, our study showed empirically that
the state would save more money by breaking up larger districts than by merging
Even if one
were to accept the findings of the MSU study — despite its apparent plagiarism
and problematic methodology — the savings it predicts from consolidating are
still exaggerated. Although the study states that charter public schools should
not be included in an analysis of school district consolidation, it includes
them in its consolidation savings equation anyway.
many flaws, the MSU study drew headlines because of its promise to policymakers
that they could save $612 million by simply reorganizing Michigan's public
school districts. The study's actual research doesn't support this claim at
the bulk of Michigan schools' costs are not lines on a map, but labor contracts
signed by local school boards and unions. Instead of dealing with these
built-in costs, the governor and Legislature would prefer talking about "safe"
subjects like school consolidation that don't draw heavy fire from powerful special
interests groups like the Michigan Education Association.
The state needs
to either create incentives for local districts to control their labor costs or
reform state-controlled school spending, like the pension system. Until this is
done, expect politicians to continue to chase the reform gimmicks that will
provide them cover for failing to do something about the rising costs.
Michael Van Beek
is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a
research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is
hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.