When Kansas was admitted to statehood in 1861, Kansas already had 200 school districts "up and running"—mostly in eastern Kansas. Each elementary school was its own district governed by a five member local board of education. By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 9,000 school districts in Kansas. New high schools, each also with a school board, created a mesh of overlapping districts.
In 1901, the Kansas Legislature authorized the first school consolidation. It was a voluntary process. Districts could vote to unify and the state would fund the transportation of students. County superintendents had authority to combine adjoining districts with less than five students each.
After World War II, the Kansas Legislature forced reorganization of the school districts in an attempt to provide equity in financing. Over 8,000 elementary districts merged to less than 5,000 before the law was ruled unconstitutional in 1947.
In the late 1950s, the Kansas Legislature contracted with the University of Minnesota to survey Kansas schools. There were now about 2800 school districts, many one or two-room schools in rural areas. Only 238 offered the full K-12 grades. The study recommended each school district have 1200 students in grades K-12 and be county-based. But many rural counties lacked that number of students and the Legislature allowed other plans to be submitted. At the time, the state provided 22 percent of district budgets, local taxes provided 74 percent and the federal money paid three percent.
Kansas’s first unification law was in 1963. Each county formed a planning commission; Johnson County got two commissions. Instructions were to form one or more school districts per county, each with 200 or more square miles of territory and at least $2 million in valuation. A statewide vote approved the recommendation of 311 unified schools districts or "USDs." At this same time, the position of State Superintendent was eliminated and our current 10-member elected Kansas State Board of Education was created that in turn hires a Commissioner of Education.
By 2002, the Legislature had commissioned a $200,000 study from Augenblick and Myers. They found Kansas has 1 percent of the nation’s pupils, 1.6 percent of the nations’s schools and 2.1 percent of the nation’s school districts. They found districts that are too large, such as Wichita and Shawnee Mission, but also 50 school districts that were too small. They recommended options dropping the number of districts to either 284 or 255. At the same time, two Kansas superintendents, Ken Kennedy at Pratt and Sharol Little at Manhattan used a model, similar to regional hospitals and clinics, to consolidate many districts into a few regional school districts. Neither plan was adopted by the Legislature.
These last few years have seen the steady drumbeat of rural school consolidation (from 303 to now 293) as little rural schools lose students and can no longer afford to provide a full curriculum. By statute, schools that consolidate get to keep their higher pre-consolidation funding for several years—intended as an incentive to consolidate. Ironically, this also prevents any immediate savings: if we had known the 2008 economic crisis was coming, major school consolidation earlier in the decade would have helped.
With no bold leadership, and a system that makes "consolidation" political suicide, we have seen the gradual forced consolidation of small rural school districts by bankruptcy. The resulting gerrymandered districts will lack the logic of a larger intelligent plan. The agonizingly slow process prevents any substantial savings. In spite of tax incentives for out-of-state folks to move to rural Kansas, we cannot expect to turn around this population shift, especially with young families with schoolchildren. Consolidation is inevitable and should center around school quality, recognizing that some loss of community identity when high schools are merged is inevitable.
If only there was a consolidation czar that everyone could trust, who could build an acceptable consensus, district-by-consolidated district. But short of such a "Jimmy Stewart" figure, Kansas is destined to slouch along in perpetual indecision and political timidity.