Early in the 20th Century, when corporatists, socialists and other self-proclaimed “progressives” were casting around for ways to sell their various collectivisms to mainstream America, the concept of industrial mass production struck many of them as just the ticket.
From the standpoint of how best to “market” their doctrines, it was perfect: What would look more American and capitalist-friendly than the process at the heart of the capitalistic miracle itself?
It also perfectly fit their collectivist psyches: Eager to design a “New Socialist Man” or a “New Fascist Man,” they also lusted to mass-produce these new, ideologically-correct heroes for their anti-bourgeois cause.
The campaign to insinuate the collectivist ideologies was surprisingly successful. In the hands of the totalitarian ideologues, the ideas of economies of scale, mass production and mass marketing—all part of the private sector’s sphere of voluntary choice—were recast as repudiations of the rights of individual choice, as ways of putting individuals at a disadvantage vis-à-vis mobilized mobs, and as implicit rationalizations for transferring power away from individuals and into the hands of big-government schemers.
By the early 1930s, hordes of the half-educated in America’s business community had swallowed the bait. Taking up cudgels for coercive collectivism—usually of a corporatist stripe—they lobbied for industry-wide government-sanctioned cartels. Academics, too, found that they could flog with abandon schemes out of Italy, Germany and Russia for turning America’s constitutional system on its ear—and yet suffer no loss of standing.
It was in the field of education, however, that the collectivists had perhaps their greatest success. “Economies of scale”—an idea rooted in mass-production processes and the factory model—was sold to American educators as the reason to close small schools and consolidate school districts.
Common sense can easily see that books, busing services and cafeteria food should all be less expensive if bought in bulk. That’s made it easy for proponents of big, factory-style schools to argue that huge school districts and massive education “plants” will be much more cost effective than small and medium-sized districts.
Unfortunately for America’s youth and their teachers, that argument turns out to be false. Moreover, it has been proven false, empirically, innumerable times over the last six and a half decades.
A great object lesson in how consolidation schemes get sold to an unsuspecting public can be observed right now in Arizona. If you’d like to better understand the background of the forthcoming fight over deconsolidation of the Washoe and Clark school districts—and how years ago Nevada got led down the garden path—go to the www.goldwaterinstitute.org web site. Click on “Studies” on the menu at your left, and then download and read: Competition or Consolidation? The School District Consolidation Debate Revisited.
Issued in January, this outstanding report, by Goldwater Institute education analysts Vicki Murray and Ross Groen, examines the current Arizona proposal to consolidate that state’s current 233 regular school districts into about 40. Repeatedly, the Murray-Groen report demonstrates how consolidation proponents keep getting it wrong: There is no simple, clear relationship between size of school districts and administrative costs. The Goldwater study also inventories the many studies around the U.S. over the last 60-plus years showing that big school districts don’t yield savings, but rather administrative bloat and chronic waste of taxpayer funds.
Worse than the dollar waste, however, is the human—as the dated, mass-production factory mentality of Nevada educrats keeps showing up in the form of huge, industrial-style schools. Clark County—now the fifth largest school district in the U.S.—averages enrollments of 2,800 students at its 18 regular Las Vegas high schools. Yet it’s well known that learning best occurs in schools of around 500 students.
These big factory schools, therefore, have been built to satisfy the ambitions of politicians and the interests of teacher union bosses—not the needs of Nevada students and teachers. In these huge industrial plants, bureaucratic rules and regulations now largely define roles and relationships. The natural result is a debilitating alienation for both students and teachers.
Given this depressive atmosphere—sapping, as it does, students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ motivation to teach—few attempts to bolster academic instruction in Nevada’s government schools are likely to amount to much.
As a consequence, the deconsolidation question here in the Silver State provides a clear way to take the measure of both politicians and officials in the state and local educational bureaucracies.
Find out where they are on deconsolidation and you’ll find out where they really stand regarding genuine education.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.