December 13, 2012
Why do we have so many school districts?” asked reader Micheale Duncan. “What is the benefit? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to operate one? What would be the downside of it?”
There is a lot of Colorado history on this, and there could be opportunities for more small school districts to consolidate, reducing the overall number. However, many small districts can make a strong case for why they should remain independent.
With 15 school districts, El Paso County has the most of any of Colorado’s 64 counties. Colorado Springs is the only city in the state with five school districts operating within its borders.
Some might say these facts fly in the face of the county’s love of limited government, but since its inception in 1876, Colorado’s constitution has very clearly endorsed local control in education.
For instance, we have no statewide textbook committee as they do in Texas, because decisions on curriculum are left to local school boards.
Like the rest of the rural West, Colorado once had many school districts. In 1935 the state had 2,105 school districts — many of which were one-room schoolhouses.
Consolidation was encouraged, starting in 1947, and many of the old rural districts disappeared. Colorado now has 178 school districts.
The rural districts in El Paso County are tiny. Some enrollments: Peyton, 649; Calhan, 520; Edison, 118 Miami-Yoder, 316. Could they save money by consolidating?
Yes, at the cost of local control.
To see the flip side, observe the remarkable example of Manitou Springs School District 14, which has become a leader in teaching the arts — so much so that 40 percent of its 1,418 students live outside the district. Manitou wants no part of being annexed by Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 or Colorado Springs School District 11, districts that are losing students to Manitou.
“We’ve been able to extend our offerings,” Manitou School Board President Molly Stevens said. “Combining with other districts, we might not be able to offer these things.”
With a bit of understatement, Stevens added, “We’re a district of choice for many families.” By consolidating with another district, she said, “We would lose that which we love.”
Manitou has no charter schools because, in essence, the entire district constitutes a charter school for the Pikes Peak region.
If you view school district consolidation as a pendulum swing, the emergence of 190 charter schools in Colorado is a swing in the opposite direction. Charter schools may not be individual districts, but the autonomy they are granted creates an echo of the time Colorado had many more districts than it has now.
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