Next month, a panel appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour will deliver a report on the possibility of consolidating some of Mississippi's 152 school districts. Barbour tasked the Commission on Education Structure with investigating the feasibility of consolidation, not its efficacy. For some public school advocates, the panel's recommendation of mergers is a forgone conclusion.
Barbour announced the Commission's formation in December and, in April, announced that the Commission would pay a Colorado-based consulting firm to prepare a report, using funds from undisclosed private sources. After questions from media, the governor's staff divulged the three donors: the National Governors Association, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Barksdale Reading Institute, whose CEO, Claiborne Barksdale, also sat on the governor's commission.
To some public-education advocates, the private funding was damning evidence that public opinion on mergers would not influence the panel's recommendation. After all, Barbour had called for consolidation in his November 2009 state budget proposal. He even attached an arbitrary estimate of savings: $65 million for reducing the state's school districts from 152 to 100.
In its April 19 final report to the commission, the consulting firm, Augenblick, Palaich & Associates, targeted 18 districts for consolidation. Dissolving those 18 districts could save up to $13.8 million, lead consultant John Augenblick told the Commission.
Mike Sayer was not surprised by Augenblick's findings.
"From the beginning, I give Augenblick credit for having been absolutely upfront about what the game was," Sayer said.
Sayer, a senior organizer and training coordinator for community-organizing group Southern Echo, attended every commission meeting, sitting in the front row of seats. Sayer sees Augenblick's study as an excuse for eliminating the autonomy of poor, majority-black school districts.
"It's no accident that the school districts that end up the target of Augenblick's criteria are essentially, majority-black, low-wealth, under-performing small schools," Sayer said.
Augenblick's report selected the 18 districts on the basis of three criteria: Districts had to score lower on the state's Quality Distribution Index, educate fewer students and spend more on administrative costs per student than the statewide average. Sayer argued that the cutoff points Augenblick used for each criterion were arbitrary, something that Augenblick himself acknowledged in his presentation to the Commission.
"There's something of an illusion to say that it isn't outcome-oriented, that the data's totally objective," Sayer said.
Moreover, Sayer argued, the criteria are suspect. Southern Echo has requested Augenblick's raw data, to review his selection of districts, but the commission has refused to release it thus far. Still, the organization produced its own counter-study, which showed that poverty, and not a smaller district size, correlates with lower academic performance.
"Our first study showed that when you account for poverty, the issues of school (district) size evaporate," Sayer said. "They're irrelevant. Poverty is really the driving factor on student performance."
Augenblick's study revealed only one consistent academic benefit from larger district sizes: a wider variety of course offerings. Sayer questions whether a greater variety of courses is worth the disruption of eliminating rural school districts.
Sayer is not alone in his concern about the commission's pending report. State Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, believes that the commission's work has been valuable but that existing state laws could accomplish many of the aims of district consolidation.
The Children First Act, passed in 2009, granted the Mississippi Department of Education authority to replace superintendents and school boards in chronically failing school districts. Related legislation passed this year allows MDE to consolidate all schools under state control into a single Recovery School District.
State law also already allows for adjacent school districts to voluntarily consolidate. One of the major expected recommendation from the commission's report, then, is a method for "involuntary" consolidation: eliminating one under-performing district and merging it into a receiving district. Commission members spent much of a May 10 meeting discussing possible incentives that the state could use to make consolidation more attractive to successful districts.
Carmichael said that he expects the Legislature to first consider potential incentives for voluntary consolidation.
"The people that live in these school districts ... have got to be able to see that their children are going to benefit from whatever you're going to do," Carmichael said.