School rooms First: District consolidation can enhance Illinois’ schooling outcomes whereas saving taxpayers cash

Illinois needlessly wastes scarce education tax dollars on excessive layers of school district administration, simultaneously depriving students of resources that could be better used on instruction costs and driving up the cost of education for property taxpayers. Largely as a result, the state’s outcomes have lagged lower-spending states for a 16-year period.

From 2003 to 2019, Illinois’s per pupil spending was the highest among neighboring states, but average student outcomes were worse. Neighboring states spent between 8% and 25% less per pupil, but each of them scored better on student reading assessments by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Additionally, all but two states, Missouri and Kentucky, scored better on NAEP math rankings, and all of them had better high school graduation rates during the period.

Nationwide, 15 states spent less per pupil than Illinois but received better NAEP scores for both math and reading. Illinois ranks 15th for spending per pupil but 27th on both math and reading assessments on average since 2003.

The disconnect between Illinois’ high education spending and below-average student outcomes stems from overspending on the heirarchy above its schools. Overspending on district administration drives up costs while siphoning dollars away from students and teachers in the classroom, where spending has the best return on investment for student achievement.

Illinois was the only state to spend more than $1 billion on general district-level administration in 2018, further evidence of its position as an extreme national outlier. California, which has more than three times as many students, spent one-third less on general administrative costs at $780.5 million. California joined Illinois in spending more than $1 billion on general administration in 2019, but Illinois still spent more.

Illinois’ $631 per pupil spending on district administration is more than double the national average as of 2019.

Peer-reviewed research from economists and public policy experts has reached a consensus that “how” money is spent on education matters more for education quality than “how much” is spent. Studies also show consolidation of school districts, but not schools, offers a path to simultaneously reducing costs and improving student outcomes.

Original analysis from the Illinois Policy Institute adds further to the existing evidence, showing a strong statistical link between student outcomes and higher spending on instruction across all 50 states, but no relationship between education quality and higher spending on general administration. States with larger districts serving more students and more schools also, on average, spend less on district-level administration and place lower burdens on homeowners through property taxes.

Illinois’ current procedures for consolidation are woefully inadequate and have made Illinois the outlier it is today. Under current law, voter-initiated petitions for consolidation can be blocked by an “administrator’s veto.” Administrators with something to lose are often the chief opposition to more efficient school districts.

An earlier 1985 effort to reorganize Illinois school districts to better serve students’ needs was overturned by opposition from those involved in local school district administration. Illinois politicians chose then to prioritize financially conflicted special interest groups over Illinois’ children, parents and taxpayers.

If Illinois is to live up to its responsibility to support a high-quality education system that maximizes each student’s individual potential, lawmakers must set aside special interest opposition and put classrooms first. A bill currently moving through the Illinois General Assembly, the Classrooms First Act, offers the best opportunity to achieve that important goal

Introduction: Wasteful administrative spending drives up costs and holds back student achievement

Supporting a high-quality education that fosters children’s ability to maximize their potential is perhaps the most important responsibility of state government. Unfortunately, Illinois is failing to deliver on this goal as well as it should because of excessive and wasteful spending on district administration.

Illinois spends a lot per pupil on K-12 education, but its student outcomes range from average to worse. Overspending on district administration drives up costs while siphoning away dollars from the classroom, where they have the best return on investment for student outcomes.

From 2003 to 2019, Illinois’ per pupil spending was the highest among neighboring states at $11,875 on average. Neighboring states spent between 8% and 25% less per pupil, but each of them scored better on student reading assessments by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the “nation’s report card” or NAEP. Additionally, all but two states, Missouri and Kentucky, scored better on NAEP math rankings and each neighboring state saw higher graduation rates.

One benefit of averaging state education data over multiple years is it smooths out any single year fluctuations and demonstrates a long-term pattern.

The bottom line is Illinois spends more on education to get less compared to its Midwest neighbors. Among all 50 states, Illinois ranks 15th for spending per pupil but 27th on both math and reading assessments since 2003. There are 15 states that spend less per pupil than Illinois but receive better NAEP scores for both math and reading (See Appendix A for data on all 50 states).

High and inefficient education spending also contributes to Illinois’ crushing property tax burden, which is the second highest in the nation.1 On average, nearly three-fifths of local property tax collections in Illinois go to school districts as of 2019.2

While left-leaning groups such as the Illinois Economic Policy Institute have argued increasing state funding for education would alleviate the need for local funding and help lower property taxes,3 this historically has not worked. During the past 20 years, Illinois property taxes have increased by 106% despite a 70% increase in state spending on education.

There is little evidence that spending more at the state level will encourage local governments to raise less in property taxes at the local level. A better strategy is to cut spending that is wasteful or nonproductive, and return the savings to overburdened property taxpayers.

A key reason Illinois spends more than other states yet lags behind in student outcomes is much of the spending never makes it to classrooms, where it can directly benefit students and teachers. Excessive layers of district bureaucracy result in an inefficient allocation of public education dollars and deprive taxpayers of a good return for their money.

Illinois has 852 school districts, the fourth most among U.S. states.4 Its spending on “general administrative costs” per pupil is the second highest among states.5 General administrative costs refer only to district-level costs such as the office of the superintendent, school board and other district-wide spending, such as marketing. The category does not include the cost of administration within schools, such as principals and guidance counselors.

The reason for Illinois’ overspending on district-level costs is clear from the data – Illinois has too many districts serving too few students. If Illinois were to match the national average of districts per student, it would have 208 fewer districts, or a reduction of about 25%. If it were to match the proportions of peer states with similar or larger total student enrollment, it would have between 324 and 800 fewer districts.

Florida, the state with the most streamlined district administration among large states, has only one school district per county. A 2009 report from Illinois State University found six other states use a one-district-per-county model while Hawaii has just one statewide school district.6

Data shows states with larger districts on average also spend less on general administration, an intuitive result because larger districts are able to achieve greater economies of scale, meaning costs per student go down as the number of students per district goes up. Among large states, there is a strong correlation between students per district and general administration spending. Each large state that serves more students per district also spends less per pupil on district costs compared to states with smaller districts. This statistical relationship is also moderately strong (r = -0.32) among all 50 states using standard conventions in political science and similar social sciences.7

Similarly, there is a strong statistical relationship between higher spending on general administration and higher property taxes (r = 0.61). In other words, states with less district overhead also tend to put less of a burden on local taxpayers overall.

Illinois was the only state to spend more than $1 billion on general district-level administration in 2018,8 underscoring it is an extreme national outlier. Total general administrative spending was $1.19 billion. California, which has more than three times as many students, spent one-third less on general administrative costs at $780.5 million. California joined Illinois in spending more than $1 billion on general administration in 2019, but Illinois still spent more.

Illinois’ $631 per pupil spending on district administration is more than double the national average as of 2019.

If Illinois reduced its general administrative spending to the national average per student, it would save nearly $732 million in unnecessary costs that could be reinvested in the classroom to improve student outcomes or returned to overburdened property taxpayers.9 A bill currently receiving bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly, the Classroom First Act, presents the best opportunity for Illinois to achieve this goal.

The Classrooms First Act was first introduced by state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, in 2019. Illinois House of Representatives members unanimously passed it.10 It never received a full vote in the Senate, but has been reintroduced by Mayfield and a bipartisan group of more than a dozen co-sponsors.11

The Classrooms First Act would create the Efficient School District Commission, tasked with making recommendations for consolidating districts. Each consolidation recommendation would go to local voters for approval. The Commission includes representation from all key stakeholders, including teachers unions, organizations representing school boards and superintendents, regional representation from each of the state’s education support districts, and parents. It is tasked with developing specific recommendations for a minimum 25% reduction in bureaucracy, roughly the amount needed to bring Illinois in line with the national average. A larger reduction in districts would likely result in larger benefits.

The bill would require all newly formed districts to be unit districts, meaning they’d serve both high schools and elementary schools. Unit districts spend money more efficiently on average in Illinois, spending $12,704 per student compared to $17,368 for high-school-only districts and $14,001 for elementary-only districts.12

Consolidation of districts, particularly among the smallest districts, is a commonsense and proven strategy to reduce the cost of administration while improving student outcomes. Giving Illinois voters the opportunity to exercise that option would yield major benefits for public education.

Research shows student outcomes depend more on how money is spent than merely on how much is spent

The fact that Illinois’ high spending on K-12 education has not helped it outperform lower-spending states in terms of education quality may seem surprising. However, evidence from the expert literature on education demonstrates more resources do not always mean higher student achievement.

The efficient allocation of resources with a focus on the direct benefits to students may ultimately be more important than the overall amount of spending. Of course, there is a minimum level of money required to meet students’ needs, and higher spending within an efficient system may still yield improvements. But, overall, the evidence suggests policymakers seeking to improve education should pay at least as much attention to how money is spent as they do to how much is spent.

Original data and research from the Illinois Policy Institute adds further to the existing evidence, showing a strong statistical link between student outcomes and spending on instruction, but no relationship between education quality and spending on general administration.

Taken together, the evidence is clear that consolidation of school districts offers Illinois a path to reducing waste in education spending while improving student outcomes.

Academic debate over whether ‘money matters’ for student achievement offers lessons for Illinois

Researchers have fiercely debated the relationship between student outcomes and public education spending since the Coleman Report, named for lead author James S. Coleman, first found in 1966 that “money doesn’t matter.”13

Formally titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, the Coleman Report was a first-of-its-kind study commissioned by the U.S. government as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its purpose was to study inequality in K-12 education. The 746-page report includes a variety of statistical findings and for its time contained a breathtaking amount of data. But the most long-lasting impact of the report stemmed from its findings related to what really drives different levels of student achievement:

“Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”14

According to the Coleman Report, socioeconomic and home life factors were the strongest determinants of student achievement. Variations in resources between schools explained next to nothing about divergent student outcomes in this view. If true, it would have been a major blow to education advocates who saw school finance reforms as an effective way to improve education quality.

Research for the next several decades sought to settle the debate between the “money matters” and “money doesn’t matter” camps of experts.

In 1997, a study published in Sociology of Education opened by saying, “Because of the prestige of the Coleman Report, few sociologists of education assert that school spending is associated with student’s achievement.”15 The 1997 study found spending increases, if used to reduce class sizes, were actually associated with statistically significant increases in NAEP 8th grade math scores. The fact that it explicitly contrasted these findings with Coleman’s, released more than 30 years earlier, speaks to the extended debate sparked by the 1966 report. And this contrary finding was far from universally accepted for many years.

Eric A. Hanushek, an economist who focuses on education policy, concluded in his comprehensive 2003 review of academic literature on the topic, “there is very weak support for the notion that simply providing higher teacher salaries or greater overall spending will lead to improved student performance.”16 However, Hanushek also cautioned the results do not “mean that money and resources never matter…it is just that no good description of when and where,” resources can lead to higher student performance was available.

In other words, statistical evidence about the impact of higher spending on education was mixed up to that point. No one had been able to explain why some studies found a positive relationship, some found a negative relationship, and many others failed to find any statistically significant impact of money on student achievement.

More recent research has provided stronger evidence increased spending on education can cause student outcomes to improve. Advancements in research techniques combined with exogenous, or externally driven, increases in K-12 spending that only impacted certain districts allowed education researchers to more closely match true scientific experiments. Previous studies had only been able to compare pre-existing statistical associations without anything like the outside “intervention” of an experiment. School finance reforms over several decades essentially created test groups and control groups out of school districts by providing more resources to some and not others.

From 1971 to 2010, state supreme courts overturned school finance systems in 28 states for overreliance on local property wealth to fund education and the disparities this caused.17 Other pseudo-experimental studies were made possible by voter-initiated school finance reforms.

For example, a 2017 study looked at Michigan’s Proposal A, approved by voters in 1994 to equalize funding across districts.18 It found that a 10% increase in spending per pupil was linked with a 7% increase in college enrollment and made students 11% more likely to earn a college degree. A 2020 study in the Journal of Public Economics looked at more than 3,000 local referendums to increase education funding across seven states and found similarly positive results for graduation rates, as well as a significant and positive effect of higher spending on NAEP test scores.19

That multi-state study also found there were likely diminishing returns to increased spending and improvements were concentrated in districts that were poorest and lowest-spending before reform. Other studies have come to similar conclusions. An analysis of all 26 states that enacted school finance reforms from 1990 to 2012 also found the benefits of higher funding were concentrated in low-income districts.20

These findings suggest spending increases in the districts previously farthest from adequate funding will improve results, but leaves open questions about when and how money matters for high-spending districts or those closer to average.21 In other words, it’s possible there’s a minimum level of sufficient spending, but spending increases beyond that level will not yield improvements in student achievement.

C. Kirabo Jackson, a Northwestern University economist, in 2018 published a comprehensive overview of both older statistical association studies as well as more recent quasi-experimental studies. He concluded, “By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled. Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most, and also in what contexts school spending increases are most likely to improve student outcomes.”22

More research needs to be done to more accurately determine what types of spending increases work and which do not. But the lessons researchers have already learned provide valuable insights to Illinois lawmakers seeking to improve the state’s education system.

On the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report in 2016, education economist Eric Hanushek – who in 2003 wrote about the “failure of input-based schooling policies” – reflected back on the enduring impact of Coleman’s research and the debate it sparked. “There now appears to be a general consensus that how money is spent is much more important than how much is spent,” he concluded.23

Illinoisans should keep this consensus in mind when considering that the Prairie State spends more than any other state on district administration overall. Redirecting resources to classrooms, where it can directly benefit students and teachers, would be a much better use of these funds.

Original research shows higher spending on instruction benefits students, while more spending on district administration does not

While research on the value of increased school spending has been hotly debated until recently, research on the benefits of school district consolidation consistently gives more clear-cut answers. Consolidation of districts, but not schools, generally results in improved student outcomes as well as taxpayer savings.

Consolidation can boost outcomes by increasing resources available for instruction, such as hiring additional teachers to reduce class sizes or boosting teacher pay to attract better talent. Another key benefit is larger districts are able to offer more expansive curriculum and better coordinate curriculum between high schools and elementary schools, if they serve both.

As far back as 1975, a study of Colorado school districts found less administrative overhead was associated with higher student test scores in math and reading.24 Increased teacher qualifications, such as obtaining a master’s degree, also had positive impacts.

Recent research confirms and expands on this evidence. For example, an Indiana-based study in 2018 found increasing the size of a district to 1,000 students improves the average SAT score by 48 points; increasing the size again to 2,000 students can increase the average SAT score by an additional 14 points.25 As school districts approached 4,000 students, they also saw significant increases in the number of honors student graduates and performance on algebra assessments.

Related to the cost savings and efficiency, a study of a decade worth of consolidations in New York found consolidation reduced per pupil operating expenses by close to 50% in districts with 1,500 students and by about 62% in 300-pupil districts.26 Many other studies also find the benefits of consolidation are greatest in small districts.27

Illinois-specific studies have likewise found larger districts spend less to get more.

Research from the Illinois Policy Institute shows increasing the size of small districts in Illinois has a statistically significant impact on ACT scores. In Illinois, a 10% increase in student enrollment is associated with a 0.04 to 0.06-point higher composite ACT score on average. The results are more extreme for smaller school districts. For districts with fewer than 1,000 students, a 10% increase in district size is associated with up to a 0.09-point higher average composite ACT score.28

An Illinois State University dissertation provides additional state-specific evidence. A statistical analysis of Illinois school districts found larger districts spend less per pupil and achieve better results.29 “Based on the findings of this study, for many districts, in order to save costs and increase student achievement simultaneously, consolidation seems like a viable option,” the author concluded.

To integrate these findings with related research on the effects of student spending and outcomes, researchers should focus future work on determining which types of spending provide the most benefits to students. An important question is whether spending on instruction improves education outcomes more than spending on general administration because reallocating resources from district overhead to classroom costs is a common goal of consolidation.

Unfortunately, few existing studies differentiate between types of spending when examining the impact on student outcomes. A minor exception is a number of studies have attempted to determine whether school infrastructure spending improves student outcomes, with inconclusive results.30

However, while researchers have yet to conclusively determine which types of spending matter most, some research offers insights into when districts will increase one type of spending versus another.

For example, a 2016 study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found spending increases caused by externally driven school finance reforms resulting from court orders or voter initiatives led to larger increases in instructional spending and school support service spending compared with spending increases occurring through more typical processes.31 “How the money is spent matters a lot,” the report found, and “exogenous increases in school spending are more closely tied to productive inputs than endogenous increases in school spending.”

This helps explain why statistical association studies based on existing funding differences failed to find positive impacts, while studies based on externally initiated school finance reforms found larger effects. The statistical association studies were lumping all types of spending increases together, regardless of whether districts used their resources efficiently, obscuring statistical relationships.

If the theory that instructional spending is more productive is correct, then states that spend a larger share of their pupil expenditures in classrooms should have better student outcomes on average than states that spend more on general administration.

The Illinois Policy Institute collected and analyzed spending and outcome data for all 50 states from 2003 to 2019. Spending data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey of school system finances, while outcomes were measured by 8th grade NAEP test scores, as is common in the peer-reviewed research. The data provides strong evidence that instructional spending benefits students while district-level administrative spending does not.

States that spend a larger share of education resources on instruction compared to the national average tend to have higher than average NAEP reading scores. Specifically, all states that spend 60% or more of their education budgets on instruction outperform the U.S average. The statistical relationship is strong and significant (r = .51). Meanwhile, spending on general administration is unrelated to NAEP reading scores.

The picture is even more stark when looking at how different types of spending relate to NAEP math scores. While the relationship between instructional spending and math scores is almost as strong as with reading scores (r = .46), the correlation between administrative spending and math scores is actually negative, though not statistically significant. In other words, states that spend more on school district costs tend to have slightly worse mathematics outcomes than those that spend less than the national average.

Combined with existing research on K-12 education spending and district consolidation, this new data leaves virtually no doubt consolidating school districts provides Illinois lawmakers with a path to improving student outcomes and giving taxpayers a better return on investment. Redirecting resources to classrooms from district bureaucracy is a commonsense way to benefit virtually every Illinoisan.

Illinois lags behind in consolidation efforts because politicians caved to special interest opposition

School district consolidation was one of the most widespread and impactful education policies of the past 100 years in the U.S. From 1939 to 2019, the total number of school districts in the U.S. fell to 13,452 from 117,108, an 88.5% reduction.32

Illinois has lagged behind in accessing the benefits of the national consolidation movement because state politicians historically caved to special interest opposition from those involved in district administration. To turn things around, Springfield lawmakers must be willing to put the needs of students, teachers, parents and taxpayers above the needs of those seeking to protect their interest in the status quo.

Illinois politicians passed, then reversed, an earlier consolidation effort

In the 19th century and early 20th century, it made more sense for states to have a large number of small single-school districts, particularly in rural areas where the superintendent would have had to travel large distances to visit each individual school in a multi-school district. However, new communication technologies such as email and cell phones have made it much easier to manage multiple schools and a larger number of students across a larger geographic area.

In 1845, Illinois created the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the first statewide education authority and the precursor to the current Illinois State Board of Education.33 Among other things, the enabling state law said the statewide superintendent, “shall use his influence to reduce to a system of practical operation the means of common schools in the state.” This demonstrates reorganizing and consolidation of education bodies was one of the first statewide duties given to the state of Illinois regarding education.

Illinois voters were first given the option to vote on district consolidations in some circumstances in 1909. For most of the 20th century, the state achieved significant amounts of district consolidation. The number of districts fell from more than 12,000 in the 1940s to 5,000 by 1950.34 By 1984, the state had just 1,008 districts.35

In 1985, the ISBE commissioned a study to consider further consolidation. It found additional consolidation was needed to ensure adequate education opportunities for all students, and reported on minimum and optimal sizes for school districts in the state.36 It also found unit districts, those that serve both high schools and elementary schools, were preferable to grade-separated districts. The intent was to maximize student achievement by ensuring all districts were large enough to provide comprehensive K-12 course offerings and equality of educational opportunity.

Legislation stemming from that study created a mandatory process for consolidation, but the committees charged with recommending specific consolidation measures were appointed by local school boards. Those school boards had an inherent conflict of interest – the desire to preserve the existing system and thus their own jobs. As a group of Midwest education consultants wrote, “With few exceptions, these members were sympathetic to the current district structure and most of these committees resisted ISBE efforts to impose reorganization.”37

Within nine months of the consolidation bill’s enactment, the Illinois General Assembly and then-Gov. Jim Thompson passed legislation that effectively removed any requirement to consolidate.38 In other words, state politicians caved to special interests, choosing to preserve wasteful layers of administration at the expense of parents, students, taxpayers and the education outcomes of the entire state of Illinois. They did so in defiance of the findings of ISBE.

Instead of statewide consolidation efforts, Illinois’ district consolidation since the 1980s has followed a process that puts district administrators with a clear conflict of interest in charge of determining how much bureaucracy local communities must pay for. While voters are allowed to circulate petitions to initiate consolidation referendums, school boards and administrators retain ultimate control under current law.

In order to even file a petition for consolidation, local residents must receive approval of the school boards in each district that would be affected by the consolidation. In other words, school board members must agree to reforms that might eliminate their positions. Even if the school boards agree, both the regional superintendent and state superintendent can block the consolidation. This “administrators’ veto” of consolidation petitions means mergers only occur if local government officials with a conflict of interest agree to them.

Payments intended to incentivize administrators to approve consolidation measures began in 1983.39 Initially, these payments were designed to cover any operating deficits held by an affected district for three years, provide money to equalize salaries to the highest level from prior to consolidation, and make up any gap in state aid payments if the consolidated district qualified for less money than the separated districts had.

But in 1985, a new incentive payment was added that gave districts a $4,000 stipend per full-time staff member,40 regardless of need, for up to three years.41

From 1986 to 2019, Illinois paid out a total of $178.6 million in consolidation incentives. More than 57% of that total, or $102.1 million, was for the $4,000 per staff stipend, which has no clear connection to covering transition costs resulting from consolidation.

Illinois and any states with districts that would benefit from consolidation should avoid incentive payments that are unrelated to maintaining prior funding levels or covering transition costs.

The New York consolidation study referenced earlier discussed the impact of that state’s incentive payments on the benefits of consolidation, which require the state to cover a 30% increase in capital expenditures for 10 years after consolidation.42 It found these infrastructure incentives encourage potentially unnecessary construction projects and reduced the near-term operational savings of consolidation from 61.7% to 31.5% per student in small districts and from 49.6% to 14.4% in larger districts. Over a 30-year period, consolidation made back some of the lost savings, with data showing 43.7% net savings for small districts and 29.6% savings after accounting for the decade of higher capital spending.

Much as with education spending overall, state incentive payments should be targeted for the benefit of students and not designed to bribe administrators into accepting consolidation they might otherwise oppose.

Illinois’ administrator-led process for district consolidation has been a failure. From 1983 to 2018, the number of school districts in the state has fallen from 1,008 to 852. But those results came from just 63 consolidations, along with 96 other reorganizations such as deactivation and annexation that typically involve closing individual schools.

Additionally, the pace of consolidations has slowed over the years since the incentive payments were created.43 From 1983 to 2000, there were 41 district consolidations that reduced the number of districts by 113. That accounts for 72.4% of the reduction in districts since 1983. From 2000 to 2018, there were just 22 consolidations that reduced the number of districts by only 43.

In 2012, former Gov. Pat Quinn championed legislation that created the Classrooms First Commission to study consolidation and make recommendations for how Illinois could catch up. Among their recommendations were the state “gut and replace” the current incentive payment system in favor of one that is “affordable to the state and tailored to its reorganization targets.”44

While fixing the state’s costly and ineffective incentive payments is a good suggestion, lawmakers should also take another look at statewide consolidation efforts similar to what they abandoned in 1985.

Illinois needs significant district consolidation, but financially conflicted special interest groups still stand in the way

Illinois has a lot of catching up to do and requires significant amounts of consolidation to maximize students’ educational achievement and reduce wasteful spending on district administration.

A 25% reduction in the number of districts would bring Illinois close to the national average of students served per district. But matching the proportions of a peer state such as California would mean about 57% fewer districts. A scattered and unorganized process for consolidation, even with better incentive payment structures, is unlikely to yield those results any time soon.

In many areas of the state, the make-up of Illinois school districts still resembles the small single school districts that proliferated in the 1800s.

Nearly half of Illinois school districts currently manage just one or two schools. However, the rest are comfortably overseeing three or more and 12% manage at least seven. This demonstrates both significant opportunities for consolidation exist and larger multi-school districts are already a successful model operating in many areas of the state.

Importantly, consolidation across the state can be accomplished in a way that empowers local communities to make decisions about the make-up of their school districts, as is the case with Mayfield’s Classrooms First Act.

In an endorsement of the Classrooms First Act, the News-Gazette editorial board called the sponsorship list a “fascinating mix” and noted it includes “conservative downstate Republicans, liberal Chicago Democrats and both Democratic and Republican suburbanites.”45 The editorial board further stated while consolidation is often all talk and no action in Springfield:

“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 [district] 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.”

But these facts about the Classrooms First Act have not prevented financially conflicted administrators from opposing it. Worse, rather than arguing against the policy on the merits, opponents have instead resorted to spreading misinformation about what the bill actually does.

The chief opposition to the Classrooms First Act comes from those with a financial interest in preserving the lucrative bureaucratic positions required to staff Illinois’ 852 school districts. The average salary of Illinois superintendents was more than $161,000 in the 2019 to 2020 school year while assistant superintendents averaged $156,000.46

As of March 22, 2021, there were 113 school administrators who earned at least $100,000 a year who filed legislative notices opposing HB 7.47 Other opponents include professional and lobbying associations such as the Illinois Association of School Boards and Illinois Association of School Administrators, which represent those involved in district administration.48

Opponents have falsely argued the Classrooms First Act creates a process for “forced consolidation,” ignoring the reality of the locally controlled process the bill would create.49 The statewide study commission the bill creates has no power itself to consolidate districts. It can only make recommendations which require approval from a majority of voters in each affected district to take effect.

Additionally, opponents appear to be intentionally stoking confusion about the difference between district consolidation and school consolidation. District consolidation involves only merging administrative bodies while school consolidation involves physically closing schools.

For example, the Illinois Association of School Boards has circulated a misinformation sheet in opposition to the bill with the fraudulent title, “Forced School Consolidation.”50 That document also wrongly claims the Classrooms First Act fails to account for local considerations such as “time spent on busses each day.” Longer bus routes and increased transportation costs are potential outcomes of closing schools, but the argument has nothing to do with district-only consolidation.

In fact, a 2010 report for the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University found, “Consolidations (of districts) often result in more efficient transportation operations by maximizing use of buses and scheduling of school operations.” Reductions in transportation costs were the largest savings found in that study at 18%, larger even that 15% savings it found for central office costs.51

Even researchers sometimes fail to appropriately differentiate between district consolidation and school consolidation. For example, a 2013 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress mistakenly claimed district consolidation often leads to higher transportation costs.52 However, the citation for this claim was a study of district consolidation in West Virginia that “closed scores of small, locally-based schools” alongside the merger of administrative entities.53

Moreover, the few published studies that fail to find school district consolidation improves student outcomes generally do not differentiate between consolidations that close schools and those that do not.54 Those that do make the distinction tend to find positive benefits of district-only consolidation, but also find these benefits are at least partially eroded if school consolidation accompanies the merger of districts.55 A key reason is school closures can lead to larger class sizes and higher pupil-teacher ratios.

The Classrooms First Act creates a process for district-only consolidation. Amended versions of the bill specifically state the Efficient School District Commission is not authorized to recommend school consolidation.

Virtually all of the opposition to the Classrooms First Act comes from financially conflicted special interest groups. The arguments against it are rooted in misinformation.

Not all administrators oppose consolidation. The most recent consolidation to occur in Illinois was the merger of Cherry School District 92 and Dimmick District 175 in 2017.56 Results included more than $230,000 in reduced bond debt and a tax rate that is less than half of either the area average or the pre-consolidation rate.57 Members of the merged Dimmick school board filed witness slips, or legislative notices, in support of Mayfield’s House Bill 7.58

However, the Dimmick consolidation only occurred because declining enrollment in the Cherry school district made it a prime candidate for school closure.59 While residents and students still saw significant benefits, this underscores that consolidations under existing Illinois law only occur when administrators approve of them, which tends to be when school consolidation is inevitable.

Illinois desperately needs a process that allows communities to decide whether to consolidate for themselves, without sign-off from potentially conflicted government administrators.

Opposing the Classrooms First Act means opposing local control over the make-up of school district administration and opposing the efficient use of education dollars for the benefit of students. Illinois politicians in 1985 sided with those special interests over the best interests of students, parents and taxpayers. They did so in defiance of peer-reviewed studies and evidence from the state’s own board of education.

Conclusion: Illinois must put classrooms first to deliver for students and taxpayers

Illinois’ high spending on education has failed to result in similarly high levels of student achievement, compared to lower spending states. Overspending on needless layers of district bureaucracy deprives students of the resources they need to succeed while driving up costs for taxpayers.

Nearly three-fifths of Illinois property tax collections go to school districts. The state’s exorbitant spending on general administrative costs also helps explain why its property taxes are second-highest in the nation.

The Classrooms First Act provides the best solution to these problems. By creating a locally controlled and expert-informed process for district consolidation, the bill promises a mix of both higher student achievement and lower property taxes, depending on how savings are used at the local level.

Historically, special interest opposition helps explain why Illinois is such an extreme outlier in district-level spending. Prior attempts to bring Illinois in line with peer states and the national average have been successfully blocked by those with a financial self-interest that runs contrary to the interests of the general public.

If Illinois is to live up to its responsibility to support a high-quality education system that maximizes each student’s individual potential, it must finally put classrooms first.


1John S. Kiernan, “2021’s Property Taxes by State,” WalletHub, Feb. 23, 2021.

2Illinois Department of Revenue, Property Tax Statistics 2019, Table 03 – Property Taxes Extensions by Type Of District, 2018 and 2019.

3Frank Manzo and Robert Bruno, “Assessing Potential Options to Provide Property Tax Relief in Illinois,” Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal, Dec. 19, 2019.

4National Education Association, 2020 Rankings and Estimates Report, July 2020.

5U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Survey of School System Finances, 2018.

6Center for the Study of Education Policy, “County School Districts: Research and Policy Considerations,” Illinois State University, April 2009.

7See for Example: Haldun Akoglu, “User’s guide to correlation coefficients,” Turkish Journal of Emergency Medicine 18.3: 91-93, September 2018; Jacob Cohen, “Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences,” (2nd Edition) Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1988.

8U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Survey of School System Finances, 2018.

9Adam Schuster, “Illinois Forward 2022: Covid-19 Makes Pension Reform Imperative to Protecting Taxpayers, Services for Vulnerable Illinoisans,” Illinois Policy Institute, March 2021.

10Illinois 101st General Assembly, Bill Status of House Bill 3053.

11Illinois 102nd General Assembly, Bill Status of House Bill 7.

12Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois State Report Card 2020.

13Coleman, J.S., Campbell, E.Q., Hobson, C.J., McPartland, J., Mood, A.M., Weinfeld, F.D. and York, R.L, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.

14Ibid, p. 325.

15Harold Wenglinsky, “How Money Matters: The Effect of School District Spending on Academic Achievement,” Sociology of Education, 70(3): 221-237, 1997.

16Eric A. Hanushek, “The Failure of Input‐based Schooling Policies,” The Economic Journal, 113.485 (2003).

17C. Kirabo Jackson, “Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 25368, December 2018.

18Joshua Hyman, “Does Money Matter in the Long Run? Effects of School Spending on Educational Attainment,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 9 (4): 256-80, 2017.

19Carolyn Abott, Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu, Zachary Peskowitz, “School district operational spending and student outcomes: Evidence from tax elections in seven states,” Journal of Public Economics, 183, 2020.

20Lafortune, Julien, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 10.2: 1-26, 2018.

21C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, Claudia Persico, “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131.1: 157–218, February 2016.

22C. Kirabo Jackson, “Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 25368, December 2018.

23Eric A. Hanushek, “What Matters for Student Achievement,” Education Next, 16.2, January 13, 2016.

24Bidwell, Charles E., and John D. Kasarda, “School district organization and student achievement,” American Sociological Review: 55-70, 1975.

25Srikant Devaraj, Dagney Faulk, and Michael Hicks, “School District Size and Student Performance,” Journal of Regional Analysis & Policy 48.4 (2018): 25-37, Nov. 9, 2018.

26William Duncombe and John Yinger, “Does School District Consolidation Cut Costs?” Education Finance and Policy, 2.4: 341-375, 2007.

27See for example: Mathew Andrews, William Duncombe, and John Yinger, “Revisiting economies of size in American education: are we any closer to a consensus?,” Economics of Education Review 21.3 (2002): 245-262;  Charles Jacques, B. Wade Brorsen, and Francisca G. C. Richter, “Consolidating Rural School Districts: Potential Savings and Effects on Student Achievement,” Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 32.3: 573-583, 2000;

28Orphe Divounguy, Adam Schuster and Bryce Hill, “Bureaucrats Over Classrooms: Illinois Wastes Millions Of Education Dollars On Unnecessary Layers of Administration,” Illinois Policy Institute, September 2019.

29James L. Hayes III, “Realizing The Ideal School District Size: How District Size Affects Achievement And Expenditure,” Illinois State University, Theses and Dissertations 827, 2018.

30See for example: Baron, E. Jason, “School Spending and Student Outcomes: Evidence from Revenue Limit Elections in Wisconsin,” SSRN, 2020;

31C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, Claudia Persico, “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131.1: 157–218, February 2016.

32National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: Table 214.10, February 2020.

33William H. Phillips, Scott L. Day, and Leonard R. Bogle, “Reorganization Feasibility Study for Washington Community HSD #308, Central ESD #51, District $50 ESD, Washington ESD #52,” Midwest School Consultants, Spring 2006.

34Ibid, p. 9.

35Illinois State Board of Education, “School District Reorganizations,” Sept. 22, 2010.

36William H. Phillips, Scott L. Day, and Leonard R. Bogle, “Reorganization Feasibility Study for Washington Community HSD #308, Central ESD #51, District $50 ESD, Washington ESD #52.”

37Ibid, p. 10.

38Ibid, p. 12.

39Ibid, p. 9.

40Ibid, p. 26.

41Illinois State Board of Education, $4,000 Per Certified Staff Incentive.

42William Duncombe and John Yinger, “Does School District Consolidation Cut Costs?” Education Finance and Policy, 2.4: 341-375, 2007.

43Illinois State Board of Education, “School District Reorganizations: 1983-84 to 2020-21,” July 2020.

44Illinois Classrooms First Commission, A Guide to P-12 Efficiency and Opportunity, July 2012

45The Editorial Board, “More school consolidation a worthwhile endeavor,” News Gazette, March 31, 2021.

46Illinois State Board of Education, 2020 Annual Report.

47Patrick Andriesen, “113 Six-Figure School District Administrators Oppose Classrooms First Act,” Illinois Policy Institute, March 22, 2021.

48Illinois 102nd General Assembly, Bill Status of House Bill 7.

49Adam Schuster, “Three Myths About District Consolidation Under the Classrooms First Act,” Illinois Policy Institute, March 24, 2021.


51Sharif M. Shakrani, “Is District Consolidation Cost Effective? What is the Alternative to Consolidation?,” the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, Aug. 10, 2010.

52Ulrich Boser, “Size Matters: A Look at School-District Consolidation,” Center for American Progress, August 2013.

53Lorna Jimerson, “Slow Motion: Traveling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia,” Rural School and Community Trust, March 2007.

54See for example: Josh B. McGee, Jonathan N. Mills, and Jessica S. Goldstein, “The Effect of School District Consolidation on Student Achievement: Evidence from Arkansas,” Education Reform Faculty and Graduate Students Publications, 2021; Nora Gordon and Brian Knight, “The Effects of School District Consolidation on Educational Cost and Quality,” Public Finance Review 36.4: 408-430, 2008.

55See for example: Andrews, Matthew, William Duncombe, and John Yinger, “Revisiting economies of size in American education: are we any closer to a consensus?,” Economics of Education Review 21.3 (2002): 245-262; Christopher R. Berry and Martin R. West, “Growing Pains: The School Consolidation Movement and Student Outcomes,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 26.1 (2010): 1-29.

56Illinois State Board of Education, “School District Reorganizations: 1983-84 to 2020-21,” July 2020.

57Craig Sterrett, “Dimmick school tax rate keeps falling,” News Tribune, March 11, 2019.

58Illinois 102nd General Assembly, Bill Status of House Bill 7.

59Craig Sterrett, “Dimmick school tax rate keeps falling,” News Tribune, March 11, 2019.


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