Iron pyrite has a metallic luster and pale-yellow hue that gives it a superficial resemblance to gold and so is often referred to as “fool’s gold.” Several times in U.S. history, the promise of gold drew hundreds of thousands of people on long, perilous journeys across the continent, first to California in 1846 and then to the Klondike in 1896. For their efforts, those who survived came away mostly with iron pyrite, dirt, or worse. If they had understood their chances of success, perhaps they would have acted differently.
We Vermonters have one of the most effective and expensive PK-12 education systems in the country and so have embarked on our own epic journey of reform. In the last two years, we have passed state laws designed to encourage and sometimes force school consolidation, consolidated the governance of our own Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU), and seem to be forging ahead toward some sort of consolidation of the schools within our district driven by the lure of “economies of scale.”
Economies of scale are the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to their scale of operation (typically measured by amount of output produced), because cost per unit of output decreases with increasing scale. So General Motors can produce hundreds of thousands of cars at a single plant in Michigan each for a fraction of what it would cost you to build one car in your backyard. Anecdotal stories abound at the State House and within our supervisory union of all the wonderful opportunities to be had if we simply consolidate and reap the benefits of economies of scale. Well, as someone who has been a school board member for 10 years and carefully reviewed many local Warren and WWSU budgets, I can tell you, the significant cost savings we hope for are illusory; consolidation is fool’s gold.
See, in the fine print that accompanies any real-world application of economies of scale is something called “lumpiness”; you must reach a certain scale to achieve the economies. A cup of coffee or a gallon of gas costs the same at both the Exxon Mobil and the Sunoco gas stations that are located across from one another in the Waitsfield mall. If the two gas stations were to “merge” into one, gas and coffee prices would not change a bit because the resulting “consolidated” gas station would not be big enough to achieve any economies. You want gas and coffee economies of scale then drive to Costco in Colchester — and that’s exactly the problem with consolidation as a solution to rising education costs in Vermont. To achieve significant costs savings via economies of scale in education delivery you would have to consolidate down to so few schools in the state of Vermont that your children would spend most of the day on a bus coming and going, and as to achieving any significant economies of scale in Washington West, forget it, there just aren’t enough of us. What consolidation in Washington West will do is destroy the things that make our schools attractive: high-performing K-6 schools that are tightly coupled to each local community – in business speak, we’ll wreck our brand as people “vote with their feet” by moving away from, and not coming to, our communities. In fact, it’s already happening, but the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) folks aren’t willing to publish the data and make that known.
What to do? Well we can start by looking at what others have already done, and we don’t need expensive consultants. As well-educated citizens, we only need a browser and the internet. Start by looking at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. They have spent much more than we ever could afford over many years looking at the quality and cost of education state by state in the U.S. In fact, for years they have published an annual report with tons of information which describes how other rural states deliver high-quality education for less cost per student than Vermont. You really want to think out of the box? Check out Sal (Kahn Academy) Kahn’s TED talk. You can start re-envisioning education right there.
What we don’t need to do is to run off on a perilous journey to some consolidation Klondike, wrecking what makes our local school systems great, only to end up with a bucket of fool’s gold. The HUUSD Board should be a board, which means by definition provide oversight and direction – in other words, don’t just go along, because the direction we are headed in is foolish, and we should know better.
Rosen is a former Warren School Board member and Warren resident.