There it was, nestled deep down in the Governor's annual budget address to a joint session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a bombshell that has ignited the debate over whether Pennsylvania should consolidate its school districts from 501 to 100. Governor Rendell loves big government. His call for fewer and bigger school districts is just the latest manifestation of that infatuation.
From day one the Rendell Administration has been dedicated to making government at all levels bigger, more expensive, more intrusive, and more powerful. Rendell took to the rostrum in the state House chamber at a time when the commonwealth faces a current year budget deficit of over $2 billion. The picture for the next fiscal year is even worse. Still, he could not help but propose over $700 million in new spending.
To determine whether or not Pennsylvania's school districts should undergo a new wave of consolidation, the governor has — in typical bureaucratic tradition — proposed the creation of a commission to study consolidations and make recommendations. In other words, the future of your local school district will be decided not by taxpayers, not by your local school board, but rather by non-elected appointees selected by the all-knowing gods of government in Harrisburg.
With 501 school districts in Penn's woods it is likely some are candidates for consolidation. In some cases cost savings may result, and students might be better served. But, arbitrarily proposing to trim the number of districts to 100 suggests the end goal is not better educated students and lower costs, but rather bigger governments. And bigger governments are more easily controlled by special interests (such as teacher unions), thus furthering the governor's political goals.
If bigger school districts were better school districts, then the best school district in the state would be the Philadelphia School District. To make a profound understatement, it is not. In fact, the Philadelphia School District is a disaster and arguably one of the worst in the state. Philadelphia city schools are expensive, overly bureaucratized, and largely fails its students. Do we really want to create 99 more Philadelphia school districts?
Between the status quo and consolidation to 100 school districts lies a wide range of other options. And while a debate over school district consolidation is healthy, it is one that ought to occur at the local level among willing merger or potential merger partners rather than in the councils of an administration seeking shotgun marriages.
This is not the first time the Rendell administration has gone down this path. For years it has been trying to force municipal mergers. Pennsylvania's tradition of many small municipal governments is anathema to the Rendell big government types. They would like to see townships merge with nearby cities and boroughs, or with each other.
But such mergers are often opposed at the local level by taxpayers and by current municipal officials. A recent survey conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. found 72% of township supervisors across the state feel there are not too many municipalities. Ninety percent of the supervisors said that any merger of municipalities should be approved by voters in the affected municipalities before it takes place.
Skeptics will say the problem is local officials, both municipal and school directors, simply want to hold on to their jobs. But consider that school directors serve with no pay, and a majority of township supervisors work for less than $2,000.00 per year. People who serve in those positions do so out of a sense of community service, not personal enrichment. Such would not be the case if larger, more highly paid school districts or municipalities replaced the current system.
And then there is the issue of access. More and smaller units of government mean elected officials represent fewer people. Currently, it is easy to talk to your school director or township supervisor because he or she likely goes to your church, shops at your grocery store, or has children in school with your children. Few people in the City of Philadelphia can say that about their school board members.
The Rendell plan to consolidate school districts, just as his push for municipal consolidation, should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. This is not about saving money or better educating our children, it is about taking away local control and vesting it in the hands of a few. Bigger is not always better, especially when it is applied to government.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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