By Tony May
When Gifford Pinchot was governor back during the Great Depression it made sense to have 500 school districts. One room school houses were still a common sight, state highways were a new idea, most people outside of the cities share phone service via “party lines” and the closest thing to Twitter were Western Union boys delivering telegrams on bicycles.
Today, county-wide school districts would make a lot more sense. Getting cross-county in your car to make yourself heard at a school board meeting is easier today than riding in the family horse and buggy to a 1930s era board session, Information technology makes it as easy to handle records for 50,000 students as for 500. County-wide districts should allow a reduction in bureaucracy and duplication of middle management. It might even save money.
But, as long as people are interested in breaking the mold in the name of reform, is 67 from 500 a really good number. If you are going county-wide, why not multi-county districts? Allentown,,
Bethlehem and Easton see themselves as one, contiguous economic market. Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are seen the same way. Some counties – say Snyder and Union – are so rural and already share municipal services in other ways. Northumberland and Columbia already share a school district – Southern Columbia – that takes students from both counties.
A model exists to reduce the number of districts to 29. It’s called the state intermediate unit system. In 1970, in an earlier attempt at school reform and streamlining, the Commonwealth did away with a system of county-wide superintendents of schools and created 29 intermediate units based on geographic affinity. There’s a lot of confusion about what IUs actually do but they are pretty much empowered to provide any services to schools within their boundaries that are authorized by their boards of directors. The IU boards, in turn, are made up of delegates from each participating local school boards. Sort of a European Union for education.
Why not just do away with local school districts and cede responsibility to the IUs? Local control is popular even when the locals have forgotten what it is they want to control. Historically, it revolved around who got the contracts. Five hundred bus contracts. Five hundred architectural firms, engineering firms, insurance companies and suppliers. The list went on and on.
The point is that the idea of merger isn’t so radical. We once had county superintendents overlaid over local school districts and now we have 29 “super districts.”
The reality is that if you are going to start a reform process, you ought to think big and you also should be thinking for the long run. School districts are just a function of governing schools.
What if you thought in terms of governing educational? What if you thought in terms of the student as the basic unit of education? Families are pretty mobile these days anyway. Even in Pennsylvania, people move from district to district in a child’s 12
year educational experience.
Why not take a page from an educational reform of the 1990s – outcomes based education—and build a customized educational experience for each child? It’s already occurring more or less across the state as people shift residence and kids pick up more and more knowledge and learning outside the traditional classroom. We have traditional Publix schools, private and parochial schools, charter schools, cyber charters and for profit :”learning centers”
and tutoring services. Plus what kids learn today al fresco from the web.
Schools are critical for socialization and even for modeling good citizenship. But maybe, in the future, they won’t be nearly so important for the purposes of classical education. After all,
even into the mid-1900s, it was relatively common for people to become lawyers by “reading for the law” and clerking for an established lawyer rather than attending formal law school. The key to validating their qualifications to practice law was passing the bar exam.
So maybe school governance of the future won’t be built around 500 school districts or 67 or 29 but rather 12 million individual education portfolios – one for each Pennsylvanians – where each
formal and informal learning experience is registered.
Sixty seven is a good step in the right direction.