Many of Indiana’s small, mostly rural public school corporations, Ball State University reports, face shrinking enrollments. They’re also being hit with diminished revenue because of changes in the state tax code. Providing a quality education will become more and more difficult.
The solution, proposed in a policy brief from Ball State, is obvious but likely to be resisted: Small districts should consolidate with other small districts that are near. According to Dagney Faulk, research director for the university’s Center for Business and Education Research, fewer than 10 percent of the very small school corporations (fewer than 1,000 students) are not contiguous to another very small corporation.
“A consolidated school corporation,” said Michael Hicks, the CBER director, “can provide an equivalent level of educational services at a lower cost per student by avoiding redundant expenditures.” The center reported in 2012 that school corporations of about 2,000 students represent the “minimum efficient corporation size.”
Certainly, bigger is not always better. If a corporation has too many students, it is less likely to be as invested in each individual student. But the “smaller can be better” argument is more appropriately made for schools, which can confront students with a bureaucratic maze if they get too big.
The plain fact is that school corporations can be too small to fulfill their missions. It makes perfect sense for distressed corporations to merge in order to reduce redundancy and improve efficiency. In fact, it makes more sense than the city-county consolidations that get all the headlines. City and county governments in many ways have different functions. School corporations do not.
The General Assembly has placed much emphasis on public education in recent years. It could do worse than making it easier for small school corporations to merge. It could even create incentives to do so.