Three myths about district consolidation under the Classrooms First Act

Three myths about district consolidation under the Classrooms First Act

A bill that could reduce property taxes and improve education quality faces a misinformation campaign from school district administrators seeking to preserve wasteful bureaucracy. Here are the facts about the Classrooms First Act.

Providing support for a high-quality education that maximizes children’s potential is one of the most fundamental and important purposes given to Illinois state government. The Classrooms First Act – filed as House Bill 7 by state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan – would significantly improve the ability of Illinois’ K-12 education system to deliver on that worthy goal while simultaneously offering property tax relief.

The bill creates a process that empowers voters to directly decide whether to consolidate school districts in their local communities. It offers cost savings that could be reinvested in higher spending on students’ instruction, returned to overburdened homeowners who send nearly three-fifths of their property tax payments to school districts, or used for some of both.

The chief opposition to the Classrooms First Act comes from those with a financial interest in preserving the lucrative bureaucratic positions required to staff Illinois’ 852 school districts. Nearly half of those districts serve just one or two schools.

As of March 22, 113 school administrators who earn at least $100,000 a year filed notices that they oppose HB 7. Other opponents include professional and lobbying associations such as the Illinois Association of School Boards and Illinois Association of School Administrators, which represent those involved in district administration.

By opposing the Classrooms First Act, these parties are opposing local control over the make-up of school district administration and opposing the efficient use of education dollars for the benefit of students. But rather than attempting to argue against the merits of the bill, many opponents have instead resorted to spreading misinformation about what the bill actually does.

For example, the Illinois Association of School Boards circulated a document in Springfield which labels HB 7 “forced school consolidation” – a false assertion that directly contradicts the locally controlled process created by the bill.

Here are the top three myths about the Classrooms First Act.

Myth #1: The Classrooms First Act would create “forced consolidation”

Reality: The bill maximizes local control by empowering parents, teachers and voters to decide directly how much administration is right for their local communities.

The Classrooms First Act does not create a process for “forced consolidation,” but rather the opposite. The bill maximizes local control by empowering parents, teachers and all other voters in a district to directly decide how much administration is right for their community.

The bill creates the Efficient School District Commission, tasked with collecting hyper-local feedback through hearings and public comments, taking in expert advice and using both to make recommendations on where consolidation would provide the most benefit.

The Efficient School District Commission has no power to force consolidation.

The Commission would be required to vote by May 1, 2024, on final a plan including specific recommendations for consolidation. Those recommendations would be turned into referendums at the general election and require approval from a majority of voters in each affected district to take effect. In other words, a larger community could not consolidate with a smaller school district unless more than 50% of voters in each district approve the plan.

Myth #2: The Classrooms First Act imposes one-size-fits all standards for each school district

Reality: The bill includes no across-the-board standards for school districts, including minimum enrollment, but rather provides a process for collecting hyper-local information and feedback so voters can make context-specific decisions.

The misinformation sheet promoted by the Illinois Association of School Boards notes that a report from the National Education Policy Center says to, “Avoid statewide mandates for consolidation and steer clear of minimum sizes for schools and districts. These always prove arbitrary and often prove unworkable.” While true, this argument is irrelevant to the Classrooms First Act, which creates no mandates on schools or districts of any kind, including minimum enrollment sizes.

Instead, HB 7 creates a process for recommendations informed by local feedback that would result in an at least 25% reduction in the number of school districts statewide. That’s about the reduction necessary to bring Illinois’ number of students served per district in line with the national average.

Again, the Efficient School District Commission itself has no power to consolidate districts. It can only make recommendations, and the local voters make the decisions. The exact amount of consolidation that would occur under the Classrooms First Act is up to voters.

There are no one-size-fits-all standards or new standards of any kind that apply to individual districts or schools under this bill.

Myth #3: School district consolidation means school consolidation, leading to a loss of mascots or school colors, or longer busing routes.

Reality: Consolidation would apply only to districts – the administrative units overseeing schools – and the Classrooms First Act explicitly prohibits the School District Efficiency Commission from recommending the consolidation of any schools.

The Illinois Association of School Boards also feeds a common misunderstanding about what it means to consolidate school districts by incorrectly claiming the Classrooms First Act ignores “local considerations” and gives “time spent on buses each day” as an example of a consideration ignored.

First, this is wrong because the Efficient School District Commission is required to collect public comments and hold hearings around the state to gather feedback on local considerations. In fact, commission membership must include a representative from each of the nine regional support districts recognized by the State Board of Education other than Chicago, which is unaffected by the bill.

Second, the example of busing times is likely to feed confusion about what types of entities would consolidate. School district consolidation, meaning the merger of management bodies which oversee schools, is often confused with the consolidation of individual schools. When individual schools consolidate, there is a potential to lose school mascots and colors. Closing physical schools that house students can also lead to increased bus-route times for some students and therefore higher transportation costs.

Even researchers confuse the two separate types of mergers, which can sometimes occur simultaneously. For example, a 2013 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress claimed district consolidation often leads to higher transportation costs. However, the citation for this claim was a study of district consolidation in West Virginia that “closed scores of small, locally-based schools” alongside the merger of administrative entities.

District consolidation without school consolidation does not affect any community’s ability to keep their school colors or mascot. Additionally, as noted in a 2010 report for the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, “Consolidations (of districts) often result in more efficient transportation operations by maximizing use of buses and scheduling of school operations.”

The process of district consolidation under HB 7 is unrelated to school consolidation. Additionally, amended versions of the Classrooms First Act explicitly bar the commission from making recommendations for school consolidation.

The Classrooms First Act would improve student outcomes while lowering costs

Illinois spends a lot on education to get results that range from average to worse.

Several of Illinois’ neighboring states spend less per student and get better results. In 2017 for example – the most recent year for which concurrent data is available on spending and outcomes – Wisconsin and Indiana spent between $3,369 and $5,332 less per student than Illinois. Both states received better proficiency scores on the Nation’s Report Card for both reading and math.

Illinois was the only state to spend more than $1 billion on general district-level administration in 2018, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, making it a national outlier. California, which has more than three times as many students, spent one-third less on general administrative costs, meaning the cost of school districts.

Illinois spends $598 per student on district-level administration, more than two and a half times the national average of $237. If Illinois reduced its general administrative spending to the national average per student, it would save $716.6 million in bureaucratic costs. That’s $716.6 million that could go to classrooms or back to taxpayers.

The reason for Illinois’ overspending on district-level costs is clear from the data – Illinois has too many districts serving too few students. The Classrooms First Act provides the best solution to this problem by creating a process that empowers local communities to directly decide whether to reduce administrative overhead, thereby freeing up resources that could be directed to tax relief or classrooms.

If you support school district consolidation, you can let state lawmakers hear you before their hearing on March 24 by filing a witness slip as a proponent of HB 7 here.

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