Fun with numbers: Tom Emmer’s political calculus on consolidating school districts


One has to hand it to Tom Emmer for deep thinking about reinventing government. It’s not so much that his musings have merit, as their ability to serve as pure catnip for the fanboys at the Star Tribune’s Hot Dish Politics blog.

Take Eric Roper’s post from Saturday, Emmer brings bus tour, budget dilemma to Elk River. That locker-room charm works its magic:

The star of the show, gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, wore a permanent smile as he maneuvered through the pack, releasing regular belly laughs while hamming it up with strangers like they were college chums.

Later the piece shifts to a discussion of Emmer’s plans to deal with that budget dilemma by thinking big thoughts. Roper actually appears to tease out a specific, the sort of thing that the DFL and other journalists have be crying for Emmer to release:

Emmer’s proposed overhaul of Minnesota’s government has had many members of the media looking for specifics in recent weeks. He said they too are missing the big picture.

“For some reason when I talk to certain people in the media, they come back and they want to focus the public on – and I’m going to exaggerate, but this is exactly what it feels like – how many paper clips is this agency going to be allowed to buy in the next [year]?” Emmer said.

One big picture change? Emmer said the state might consider consolidating some of its nearly 500 school districts.

This is a fascinating suggestion, and perhaps it’s indicative of the crush Strib reporters develop once they step on Emmer’s campaign bus that the number is dropped in the article as if the Delano Republican has finally delivered some substance. On the other hand, perhaps Emmer’s self-described exaggeration about counting paperclips has served a purpose and intimidated the Strib staff writer from taking a closer look at the makeup of Minnesota’s school districts.

All that personal charm aside, one might think, given the availability of the innertubes via such modern devices as iPhones and Droids, not to mention air cards, that the reporter could have looked behind the skin of that number: 500.

I can personally attest to the fact that smart phones do work in the wilds of Elk River–indeed, in all the small towns on major roads where Tom Emmer conducted his bus tour.

Here’s what those who jfgi can learn about the schools behind that seemingly outrageously large number of districts that keep Minnesota from those big picture changes. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, there are 339 school districts.These are the traditional public school districts.

Emmer’s 500 district number is accurate when the state’s charter schools are added to this figure. According to the MDE, 152 charter schools operate in Minnesota. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools notes that:

Charter schools are public schools that are part of Minnesota’s public education system. Every charter school is a school district – but has no geographic boundaries.

Given that nearly one-third of the nearly 500 school districts Emmer wants to consider consolidating are charter schools (and he lumped the charter schools in with traditional schools in using the 500 district number), the notion of consolidation as an innovative solution is indeed an odd one.

Or, on Planet Emmer, is consolidation only for the traditional districts, and the higher and more flamboyant figure of “nearly 500” districts thrown out only for shock value, a rhetorical slight of hand?

Indeed, the charter school movement in Minnesota has been responsible for expanding the number of school districts in the state–but I’m betting that those parents who ban together to establish charter school don’t see themselves as participating in the growth of government. Rather, they have sought expanded school choice and more local control; one might ask how much the one-size-fits-all education of large, consolidated schools helped spur the charter school movement.

Perhaps the implication is that consolidated school districts would save money through the economies of scale and shared costs, yet studies suggest that few (if any) savings are achieved through state-level forced consolidation laws.

Is Emmer suggesting a state-level forced consolidation law? This would seem to be a big-government solution to a local-level, small government problem. Moreover, the impact of such top-down dictates can have a brutal impact on the civic and economic life of small towns. Tom Driscoll’s excellent 2006 essay on the role of schools in small towns, as well as Consolidation, What Is It Good For? a piece published this month in the Daily Yonder, the blog of the  Center for Rural Strategies, are worth a read.

What was Tom Emmer really talking about when he suggested this “detail”–and why didn’t the Star Tribune look beyond that special moment its reporter shared with the candidate?