September 8, 2008
Fewer Students, Districts
With school back in full swing, educational leaders must refocus on consolidating administrative units so the twin goals of efficiency and excellence in education can be achieved.
Gov. John Baldacci's consolidation effort continues to have its critics, but the numbers reiterate the need for reducing administrative units. Actual student population figures are filed Oct. 1, but projections for this year put the total state K-12 enrollment at just under 190,000. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron reports enrollment is dropping by 3,500 to 4,000 students annually, and that trend is expected to continue, bottoming out at 175,000 in 2013.
The state's goal is to reduce school districts from 290 to 80 to reduce costs, with some of the money going into the classroom to improve education. To date, about half the districts have met the benchmarks as they work toward joining with other districts. The hard work must continue this fall at school board meetings around Maine. Those who think consolidation will hurt their community schools must work to tweak the plans so they are better, not try to scuttle them with resistance.
As jarring as the consolidation effort may seem to some, it does not break new ground. Other states face growing or flat student populations, and in the face of shrinking funds, have reduced administration and per pupil costs.
According to schoolsk-12.com, in Massachusetts 1.1 million students attend school in 388 public school districts and 1,044 private schools. The Bay State spends an average of $9,600 per student. The student-teacher ratio is 37:1. In the other three corners of the U.S.: Washington State has 1 million students in 301 public school districts and 662 private schools and spends an average of $7,912 per student. Arizona educates 1.1 million students in 611 public school districts and 433 private schools, with an average per pupil expenditure of $7,256. In Florida, 2.8 million students attend 74 public school districts and 2,107 private schools, with an average per-pupil cost of $6,075.
Rural states face different challenges, but some have succeeded where Maine has fallen short. Alaska educates 135,798 students in 55 public school districts and 68 private schools, but still spends $11,253, on average, per student, close to Maine's average per pupil expenditure of $11,285. Delaware educates 124,127 students in 30 public school districts and 123 private schools at an average per pupil cost of $8,851.
The underlying problem, over which policy makers have little influence, is declining the child birth rate in Maine and in- migration rates that barely offsets out-migration. An economically vibrant state must have a critical mass of population, with a median age lower than Maine's, which is 38.6. Short of coming up with an irresistible marketing campaign to encourage people to move here, education officials - local and state - must continue clamp down on administrative costs, while working to ensure quality instruction continues and improves.
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