Education reform?

Education reform?

Limited financial resources require government to spend wisely. So why does government in Illinois waste so much money?

How much money can the people of Illinois afford to squander on unnecessary units of government?

One would think the answer would be that they can't afford to squander even a single dollar. Then again, the public squanders many, many millions of dollars, perhaps billions, every year because the public's representatives, sometimes even the people themselves, insist on it.

It's usually in the context of needlessly extensive and expensive township government that The News-Gazette rails about why the public pays so much and gets so little in return. There are, after all, 30 townships in Champaign County alone, one of 102 counties in the state.

Illinois is overflowing with township supervisors, assessors and highway commissioners, all overseen by township trustees, government entities about which most people know little to nothing.

The Legislature is, belatedly, working on legislation that will make it easier for taxpayers to rid themselves of these relics of an era that has long since passed.

But today's target is the administrative costs run up by the state's 850 school districts.

The cost of education has been much in the news recently because of concerns that too little state aid is going to the school districts that need it most and too much is going to those who need it least. However the debate is resolved by the Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner, it's a sure bet that more money will be going to support K-12 education.

That's why a recent report prepared by Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council and publicized by Chicago's Better Government Association is so relevant to the school funding debate.

BGA President Andy Shaw said the report contributes "some important research to the contentious conversation" over education spending, specifically the share of education spending that goes to administrative costs.

Researchers who examined what Shaw called the "wonky world of administrative districts" in 2014 made some hair-raising findings.

Only two states have more than Illinois' 850 districts. Altogether they spend more than $1 billion a year, the "most in the country by far," Shaw said.

That sum represents $518 per student, "two and one-half times the national average of $210."

Shaw noted that a recent commission on school funding found that Illinois "would have to spend $3.5 billion over the next decade to achieve fair per-pupil funding for districts in every state."

"Incredibly, Illinois could easily meet the commission's goal without scrounging for another penny if district administrative spending was even close to the national average because that would free up at least $400 million a year for classrooms instead of offices," Shaw writes.

What's the problem? The administrative set-up in Illinois is simply not cost effective.

The research report states that 26 percent of the state's 850 districts — 220 — have one school. Those districts "cost 67 percent more to operate than multi-school districts." It found that districts that consist of only elementary or high school "spend about a third more on administration than unit districts that include both."

The Chicago school district, not surprisingly, is a disaster when it comes to administrative costs. Given its size, one might suspect administrative costs would be less on a per capita basis. That's true in one sense because Chicago spent $350 per student, less than the statewide average. But that figure is "70 percent above the national norm and nearly four times more than New York City and Los Angeles, where administrative spending is less than $100 a student."

Shaw recommends Illinois school districts need to acknowledge the bloat and make "long-term streamlining commitments" by "restructuring salaries and eliminating positions as people retire or move on."

That will never happen without external pressure because bureaucracies are incapable of reforming themselves. Self-interest always prevails when the fox is left in charge of the hen house.

Shaw also recommends consolidation of "geographically contiguous one, two, three or even four-school districts into single administrative offices that, where feasible, include the high schools they feed into."

School consolidation is a touchy issue. But it's schools people protect, not the administration structure that oversees the school.

Clearly, there's a lot of meat on the issue for reformers to bite into. Taxpayers could save themselves a fortune and improve their entire education system if progress was made on this issue.

While the goal is worthwhile, Shaw recognized Illinois has conducted its business so sloppily for so long that it's "arguably ungovernable." Still, it's an issue government reformers need to embrace.

Township government in Illinois isn't the only boondoggle. When it comes to bureaucratic bloat, this state offers a target-rich environment. It's way past time for beleaguered taxpayers and their advocates to open fire.

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Citizen1 wrote on April 11, 2017 at 8:04 am

 So why does government in Illinois waste so much money?


Because they can.  All of those government workers vote for the status quo.  Can't effect change is it mean a loyal voter will lose a job.