The Sinclair Act at 50: What History Tells Us about the Consequences of Consolidation

Read the full report | How much of the following sounds familiar? Maine people were told by the “powers that be” that the state’s schools were too costly. The problem, it was said, was that the educational system supported too many different schools and school districts, which resulted in wasted resources. It was argued that the solution was to create larger school districts and larger educational bureaucracies. Legislators in Augusta enacted laws eliminating countless community-led school boards across the state and handing over more power and influence to bureaucrats in Augusta. Though many people across the state protested this move, it went ahead anyway, despite few solid predictions about what might result.

This sounds very much like current efforts to consolidate Maine’s many school districts into fewer, larger ones, but it is actually what happened 50 years ago, when Maine last undertook a dramatic restructuring of its educational system with passage of the Sinclair Act. Though the 1957 law has often been heralded as a great step forward for Maine’s educational system, the Sinclair Act had many negative, long-term consequences that should throw a dose of cold water on the current debate about whether continued consolidation of our schools and school districts is right for Maine’s schoolchildren.

Here are the results of the Sinclair Act:

• The number of schools in Maine dropped by 40 percent, and the average size of each school doubled.

• As larger districts were put in place, the number of local community school boards making decisions about local schools plunged, halving in number between 1950 and 1975.

• As professional administrators and bureaucrats replaced community school boards, administrative costs increased. Per pupil spending on administration grew 406 percent, in 2002 dollars, from 1950 to 1980. Over that same period, the number of people working for the Maine Department of Education tripled.

• Though sold as a means of controlling spending, total per-pupil expenditures on K-12 schools continued to rise dramatically, increasing 353 percent, in 2002 dollars, between 1950 and 1975.

Unfortunately, the state has set on the path of greater consolidation despite the evidence that it will not lead to significant budget savings. Instead, policymakers should revisit The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s plan, based on Education Service Districts, that would produce budget savings without the merging of school districts and creating of larger school bureaucracies

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