An unusual alliance of Illinois House members is backing a plan that could reduce the number of school districts in the state by 25 percent.
If you think it’s reasonable that Illinois should have more school districts (852) than Florida (75), New York (691) or Pennsylvania (789) — all with a comparable or greater number of students — you probably can stop reading this now.
Despite ongoing pressures to reduce government spending along with declining populations in many parts of the state, the number of school districts has barely budged since 2004, when there were 886.
Now a group of Illinois House members led by Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, has proposed forming a broad-based, 20-member school-district-efficiency commission whose purpose would be to make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly on the number of districts in the state and where reorganization and realignment would be constructive. One of the stated goals would be to reduce the number of school districts by 25 percent or more by promoting unit districts, like those in most East Central Illinois communities.
Prime targets for consolidation, therefore, would be the separate grade-school-only or high-school-only districts, like those in the Rantoul and St. Joseph areas. In those cases, there are two separate high school districts with separate administrators and board members, and at least five separate grade school “feeder” districts with their own administrators, board members, school buses and distinct curricula.
All of this makes for a more costly and less educationally sound system. One of the grade schools, Ludlow, with just 54 students, has per-pupil spending that amounts to $18,000 — $4,000 above the statewide average, according to its most recent report card.
Opponents of Mayfield’s bill include a number of districts, board members and the Illinois Association of School Boards. The latter group wrongly calls the legislation “forced school consolidation,” even though it calls for each proposition to be submitted to voters at the next general election.
The legislation unanimously advanced out of a House committee last week, although there are indications it will be modified before it gets to the House floor.
This is a bill worth watching and contacting local legislators about. It has the potential to reduce waste, redirect precious state education dollars to more efficient districts and better coordinate the development of full pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade curricula for all students.
The legislation has only 14 sponsors, but they include a fascinating mix: conservative downstate Republicans, liberal Chicago Democrats and both Democratic and Republican suburbanites. For now, unfortunately, the group doesn’t include anyone from East Central Illinois.
School consolidation is an idea that most people and legislators seem to favor in theory, although not always in practice. It gets discussed in Springfield nearly every year but rarely gets very far in the legislative process.
Mayfield’s House Bill 7 may be the exception. It has the potential to make Illinois government more efficient while improving educational opportunities for all students. It ensures a thorough review of opportunities for school consolidation by a commission that includes representatives of school boards; teacher unions; rural, suburban and Chicago schools; parents; and members of the Legislature. Finally, it gives residents of affected districts the final say on any consolidation proposal.