Calls for Consolidation in Michigan Reveal Many Issues

Last Updated: September 28, 2010

This article appeared in the September 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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We noticed this fall a little shift in school consolidation proposals bubbling up in states. It’s not unusual during the season before legislative sessions open for a state official or commission or legislator to announce that the state could save some large amount of money if it would only eliminate many of its schools or school districts. Nor is it unusual for calls for consolidation to pick up as the economy turns down: budget crises can provide good cover for otherwise unpopular proposals.

But this year we are seeing gubernatorial candidates in South Dakota back away from mandatory consolidation for small rural districts in that state. And, in Texas, proposals for budget-cutting incentives are primarily focused on trying to get school districts, especially large districts, to enter cost-sharing agreements. Michigan also has a proposal out to provide grant funds to districts to offset some of the costs of developing shared-service arrangements or consolidating. Those seem noteworthy shifts in state policy emphases.

The situation in Michigan particularly caught our attention. It’s not so much that the incentive proposal is especially unusual. Nor is it the fact that a widely-touted Michigan State University study, which claims the state would save millions through district consolidation, has been accused of including plagiarized passages.

What caught our attention was the way that the situation in Michigan points up how the many complicated issues involved in consolidation interact with each other. And, it makes a good case-in-point about media over-simplifications, questionable scholarship, ideological pandering (on both sides, as we see it), and problems with one-size-fits-all solutions.

The story starts off mundanely enough. Governor Jennifer Granholm included in her state budget recommendation, a proposal to set aside $50 million of the state’s School Aid Fund for a competitive grant program to encourage districts to consolidate or develop shared services arrangements. The grant money could be used to defray up-front expenses, like buying common administrative software, incurred when districts merge or combine certain operations.

State schools superintendent Mike Flanagan supports the plan. And although the plan provides funding for districts that want to consolidate, it does not force smaller or poorer rural districts to go out of business.

But it didn’t take long for many in the state to start calling for widespread consolidation of Michigan’s 550 school districts.

The touchstone here is a report commissioned by Booth newspapers, a Michigan-based newspaper chain headquartered in Grand Rapids, for its Michigan 10.0 series. According to Booth’s internet affiliate, “The concept is to explore the 10 crucial issues that Michigan must address as it faces a new decade.” One of those ten issues is “Consolidating Schools.” In fact, consolidation is the only education topic on the list. 

In the mlive post introducing the study, reporter Paul Keep writes: “Because the issue is not new, we sought to put something that is actually new on the table as the centerpiece of our eighth installment of the Michigan 10.0 series. In doing so, we wanted to provide an answer to a fundamental question taxpayers might ask: How much cost savings could we expect if school systems were organized and managed on a countywide basis instead of the current multiple school district system?”

Michigan has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate, a shrinking population, and looming long-term economic challenges. A question about how to address this situation as it affects schools is more than fair. A question that assumes a predetermined outcome for a prescribed course of action, however, is likely to produce the answer implied in the question.

And, that’s just what happened. The report, “School District Consolidation Study In 10 Michigan Counties. Is district consolidation cost effective? What is the alternative to consolidation?” authored by Sharif Shakrani, senior scholar at the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University (MSU), asserts that the state could save a whopping $612 million by consolidating all districts at the county level.

The report notes that there is little scholarly agreement on the actual cost-savings achieved through district consolidation. It acknowledges that there is no attempt in the paper to address achievement, graduation and drop-out rates, teacher retention, or parent and community involvement. The report also states that it is “based and builds on the research publication (Working Paper No. 33) “Does School District Consolidation Cut Costs?” written by William D. Duncombe and John M. Yinger of The Center for Policy Research at The Maxwell School, Syracuse University, and published in January 2001.” That paper is available at It looks at districts in New York and suggests that some savings might occur with the consolidation of very small districts.

Despite the caveats and limitations of the MSU paper, the $612 million figure got picked up and widely reported in state media, often as fact.

But Wait

Not long after the report was issued, staff at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a self-described “free market” think tank based in Midland, Michigan, suggested that part of the MSU report appeared to includes passages plagiarizing the Duncombe and Yinger paper. It listed on its website portions of the original report alongside similar portions from the Syracuse paper.

Mackinac published its own paper on optimum district size in Michigan in 2007, "School District Consolidation, Size and Spending: an Evaluation." That paper concluded that consolidation would not produce significant savings, although it does suggest an optimum school size that would close many of the state's smaller rural districts. The paper, not surprisingly given the Center's free-market stance, advocated for competition and choice as the way to drive down education costs.

In response to the charges, Michigan State has launched an internal investigation. A revised version of the report, dated September 3, 2010 includes additional materials and citations.

Initially, much of the media held that the figures in Shakrani’s report were credible despite the citation problems. Then the Mackinac Center reported on its Capitol Confidential website that William Duncombe, one of authors of the Syracuse study from which the MSU report drew heavily, said in an interview that the MSU report was an “oversimplification” and “blanket attempts to consolidate just don’t make any sense.”

Not Quite So Fast

The Mackinac Center may be well within its rights to point out apparent plagiarism in the MSU report, but it doesn’t occupy all the higher ground here. We’ll get there shortly.

The Press gets a lot of things wrong on the consolidation issue besides the MSU report. Its coverage suggests there’s very little academic research on the side of smaller schools and districts, which is not very truthful. It suggests that people who want to keep a school in their community mostly want to protect their sports teams and mascots, an accusation so trite it's embarrassing.

The Pre’s repeats an assert in the MSU report that district consolidation leaves schools in place in communities. The reality is — and the Press would know this if it followed up on some of its own reporting about recent state-initiated consolidation initiatives — that district consolidation very often leads to school consolidation. Take the Arkansas example listed in the Press coverage: Arkansas passed Act 60 in 2004 mandating consolidation for districts with enrollment under 350. Act 60 closed some 70 rural districts; about two-thirds of the communities whose district was eliminated have since lost all or most of the grades in the community school.

On the mlive website, only one rural district is featured, a small rural districts with so much local wealth it doesn’t even receive state aid at all. That’s not typical in Michigan or anywhere else.

And these issues don’t even touch problems with the calculations that led to the $612 million figure in Shakrani’s report.

But the Press does get one important thing right.

It makes the point that there are huge disparities in the educational opportunities of students based on the school district in which students live and the schools they attend. Poor students in Michigan’s poorest schools, including those in Flint and Detroit, don’t have anything like the opportunities afforded many students in nearby suburbs. The paper is right to point out these inequities and the need for Michigan to address them in order to improve its future.

As an example of how urban communities can successfully create schools that spread opportunities equitably, the Press points to Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, which has a county-wide school system. For many years Wake assigned students to schools in order to create socio-economic diversity across the district. As a result, no school was characterized by high student poverty levels and most offered fairly similar resources and opportunities to students.

Wake County’s schools have been widely recognized for high quality, equity, and improving opportunity for the most vulnerable students. And, they have been credited with underpinning the region’s population and economic boon of the last several decades.

Wake County’s approach, however, was subject to huge pressures especially from newcomers, many of whom chose the district for its high quality education but did not understand the assignment system or the complications of accommodating thousands of new students each year.

This past year, in a highly controversial move, the school board dismantled the assignment system.

In using the Wake County example, the Press shows how important diverse equitable schools are to a region — and how difficult they are to maintain. It also takes a stand for quality education for low-income communities and children.

That’s not an advocacy position the Mackinac Center expresses. It is much more concerned with dismantling teacher unions, advocating choice, and suggesting that education spending isn’t much related to education outcomes. Its positions don't do much to acknowledge gaping inequities in educational opportunities, nor does it suggest there's much shared public responsibility for addressing the causes or the cures for those inequities.

The Press coverage of Wake County also reveals one of the uglier sentiments that sometimes accompanies consolidation. Some of the posted comments reflect resentment of some residents in wealthier districts against any suggestion that a more equitable distribution of resources, opportunity, and exposure to different cultures is in order and might, in fact, benefit children in their own communities. That resentment must be acknowledged as one factor sometimes present in anti-consolidation sentiments.

Rural: Neither Left Nor Right

An issue for advocates for high-quality education in rural areas is that consolidation does not fit neatly into left/right political paradigms. In most rural places the school is the anchor of the community's economic and social life, much more than in suburban areas. When a rural school is closed, the community suffers real losses that affect children in negative ways. Further, consolidation of rural districts rarely changes the economic, social, or racial demographic of the district overall or improve prospects for the most vulnerable children. It does, very often, however, remove governance and then schools from low-wealth communities.

When consolidation is resisted, whether in rural or metropolitan areas, mostly because residents want to maintain some level of economic or racial segregation, that's a serious problem that deserves a public policy response. 

Little in the Michigan coverage of the consolidation proposals takes a very nuanced view of the issues. Although both the Mackinac and the MSU reports seem more concerned with the impact of consolidation on metropolitan schools, where it is not likely to occur, both specifically target small rural school districts. 

For its part, Mackinac does little to acknowledge the effects of poverty on children or their educations. The Press, which does at least up the subject, seems to endorse merging districts but not schools, which is unlikely on its own to make much difference for the poorest students in metropolitan communities. Far more that centralized administration is needed to get students out of schools with concentrated poverty and to give low-income parents genuine access to and influence over the schools their children attend.

In their efforts to advance their own policy solutions both the Mackinac Center and the Press reports wind up characterizing public schools as costs to the public rather than investments in the public good (not to say that wise investments might not involve some cost-cutting or shifting). 

If the superficial and ideological coverage of consolidation continues and policy is implemented, it will likely be exercised almost exclusively on the state's small rural districts. That won't bring significant cost savings to the state. But it will signal a serious disinvestment in rural communities, a disinvestment that will harm the poorest rural children and undercut the best resource rural communities have for forging their own economic recoveries. 

Local news coverage and blog reports:
Grand Rapids Press explanation of its 10 crucial issues:  
Granholm’s budget update:
The MSU report:
The Syracuse report:
Mackinac Center’s web pages suggesting plagiarism:
Mackinac Center’s web pages describing Duncombe’s response to the MSU report:

Read more from the September 2010 Rural Policy Matters.