For Merger’s Effects, Zoom Out: Carolina Journal

Merging the remaining city school systems in North Carolina with their in-county school systems? Benefits or risks? I think we’ve seen the risks with merging Greensboro and High Point and Guilford many years ago. Not properly managing the sudden growth and not preparing for it is a primary risk. See this excerpt from John Hood in today’s Carolina Journal:

RALEIGH – In scoping out the fiscal impact of any public policy, you have to make sure that you set your zoom wide enough to capture all the effects without going so wide that you can no longer see the details. Know what I mean? Whether you are getting your bearings on MapQuest or trying to copy an oddly shaped original onto a standard-size sheet of paper, you have to find the sweet spot between cutting off important information and turning the fine print into the can’t-find print. A good example of getting the ratio wrong is North Carolina’s longstanding policy of encouraging multiple school districts in a county to merge into a single administrative unit. The merger movement began in the late 1960s with the best of intentions: to combat de jure or de facto segregation. Often, city systems had significant numbers of minority students while county systems did not. Merger, often coupled with student reassignment and cross-town busing, served as a primary means to rectify past and current educational wrongs.

Later, the stated rationale shifted from desegregation to efficiency. Because merged school districts could spread fixed administrative costs over a larger student population, it was argued, taxpayers come out ahead without sacrificing the quality of the output. That is still the argument used by merger advocates such as Sen. Tony Rand (D-Cumberland), who has long favored enacting a state policy to use the state budget to force North Carolina’s remaining city systems to merge with their counties.

On Monday, the Winston-Salem Journal reported that Davidson County, fearing precisely the kind of state imposition that Rand favors, is poised to study how best to merge its county system with the city systems in Lexington and Thomasville.While integration and efficiency were worthwhile goals, making school districts larger was not the right way to achieve them. As my Carolina Journal colleagues and I have discussed several times in the past, the results of school-district mergers are often strikingly different than their supporters promise. Administrative spending and costs per student tend to rise, not fall, as you go up the scale in district enrollment. Massive districts the size of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford are way, way too large to manage effectively.

E.C. 🙂

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