Over the years, I’ve often said, “You only get a county like DeKalb, in a state that lets it happen.” And, “We only have two problems in DeKalb: Incompetence and Fraud.” But, DeKalb isn’t unique.
All of this tacitly begs the questions: (1) How should we structure checks and balances between local and state government? (2) As a population experiences demographic shifts do we have the necessary governmental framework in place to ensure that before, during and after these transitions; services and governance operate efficiently and without The Curley Effect and; (3) Under what conditions can existing political subdivisions (counties, cities, school districts) dissolve, change or reconstitute themselves?
As noted on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, Georgia is on it’s 10th Constitution; one of the youngest in the nation. (Wikipedia says it is the newest state constitution.). I’m not sure what this says about our state. Within the public education arena, I do not believe that it has provided a healthy flexibility. Georgians rightly chose, in overwhelming numbers, to amend the state constitution to allow for state involvement in the approval of public charter schools. But our state has hard-coded in an absolute number of school districts based on counties with an exemption for city school districts that existed at the time of our last constitution. That leaves Georgia with 180 school districts (159 counties plus 21 city school districts) for approximately 1.7 million students. Contrast that with the over 1000 school districts in Texas for approximately 5 million students. So, on average, Georgia has one school district for every 9,400 students, while Texas has one school district for every 5,000 students.
So, why should we care about being able to dissolve and reconstitute school districts? Why should we care about the average size of school districts in Georgia? Isn’t bigger going to be better because of “economies of scale”?
As it turns out, there is ample evidence that there is an optimal size constraint for efficient (meaning lower costs) and effective (meaning better achievement) school districts. Multiple studies show that: (1) student achievement is maximized if school districts are within a certain (smaller) size, (2) minority and poor students do better in smaller school districts and (3) the lowest per pupil costs are in smaller districts.
The Metro Atlanta area contains 35-50% of the entire state’s student population (depending on what districts you include). Most are much larger than the “optimal” size for efficient or effective outcomes. Currently, we have no ability to change this because of the constitutional prohibition on the number of school districts in Georgia.
In addition to the constitutional issues, our state Department of Education has shown no ability or desire to reign in the incompetence and fraud that is seen in districts like DeKalb. Why does the State Board of Education and the State Department of Education, continually give waivers and excuses to DeKalb to operate in defiance of state law and sound principles? DeKalb (and other districts) are routinely allowed to waive the requirement for spending on “direct instructional purposes” and given the green light to bloat their central office administrations. This is poor public administration, has negative effects on students and increases costs for taxpayers.
Georgians need to think about how we can change our state Constitution to provide improved flexibility for the most and best control of public schools. We also need to demand that our state Board of Education and Department of Education stop enabling the incompetence and fraud that have plagued the metro Atlanta school systems for so long. The DOE and the BOE should refuse any further waivers for classroom spending and class size requirements. Our children, teachers, parents and taxpayers deserve better.