Across the nation, state expenditures on public education are expected to decline in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 (National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers, 2010). For the fourth consecutive year, despite a temporary boost from federal stimulus funds, governors are proposing deep cuts to education in 2012, and the majority of states plan to spend less in 2012 on education than they did in 2008, adjusting for inflation, despite larger enrollments of students in public schools (Leachman, Williams, & Johnson, 2011). As states and local school districts grapple with the implications of budget cutbacks on the services they can provide to students, strategies for leveraging existing resources are increasingly important.
One strategy districts can use to reduce costs without sacrificing quality is to form interdistrict cooperatives to share services, staff and/or purchasing. These arrangements have also been called "clusters," "collaboratives," "consortia," "partnerships," or "shared resources/services/ purchasing agreements" (Eggers, Wavra, Snell, & Moore, 2005; Galton & Hargreaves, 1995; Nachtigal & Parker, 1990; Peed & Wyant, 2007).
Cooperatives are voluntary, semiformal, interdistrict agreements between two or more school districts for the purpose of sharing resources and services. They differ from intermediate education agencies, which are funded and/or administered by state departments of education to provide professional development and other services to educators in their service regions. The structure of cooperatives can vary widely—from independent, formal entities with their own administration, facilities and resources, paid by fees from participants, membership dues or tax levies, to less formal arrangements, with governing bodies consisting of representatives from participating districts, to single purpose interdistrict sharing agreements (Eggers et al., 2005; Sommer, 1990).
Cooperatives enable member districts to take advantage of economies of scale. For example, districts in a cooperative may receive better pricing on resources through bulk purchasing. They might also share teachers in hard-to-staff subjects. A talented physics teacher hired by one district could teach students in other member districts through videoconferencing or other online platforms. Likewise, a member district might share a calculus, Mandarin, or Spanish teacher with other districts. Leadership and professional development can be shared and maximized for districts participating in a cooperative. Early childhood teachers from member districts could take advantage of a professional development opportunity by coming together to form a larger group, which might develop into a teacher cohort to ensure ongoing and sustainable professional learning. Some districts even share a superintendent.
Ironically, although a key purpose of cooperatives is to improve cost-effectiveness, little research has been conducted to confirm whether they produce savings for members. In fact, districts themselves may not track savings; a survey of superintendents in Vermont revealed that only 42 percent of respondents evaluated savings from shared services (Vermont State Auditor, 2009).
What evidence there is suggests that savings range from modest to substantial. Minnesota's Southwest and West Central Educational Cooperative Service Units conducted two comprehensive cost effectiveness studies (as cited in Stanley, 2005), in 1989 and 1995. The first found that member districts spent $11,409,798 for collaborative services. Estimates of the costs they would have incurred without the cooperative totaled $16,926,415. The difference of $5,516,617 represents overall estimated savings of 33 percent. Savings improved by the time of the 1995 study, with members spending 36 percent less than they might have otherwise.
The Greater Lawrence Educational Collaborative (GLEC), a consortium of 10 school districts in northeastern Massachusetts, compares its rates and fee schedules for special education services to private sector rates for equivalent services.
An analysis of these data indicates that between 1979 and 1998, participating districts saved $13,221,163 in special education tuitions alone, with a total average savings of 33 percent (Stanley, 1998). More recently, Stanley (2005) conducted six case studies on the cost effectiveness of cooperatives in Massachusetts, identifying savings ranging from 10 percent (education technology) to 80 percent (professional development). Another study compared 15 Nebraska districts that shared superintendents with at least one other district for four years to 15 similar state districts not sharing superintendents. On average, districts with shared superintendents realized greater savings in superintendent and business services expenses, spent smaller percentages of their budgets on overall district administration, and had lower per-pupil costs than nonshared districts (although costs to support principals increased as school leaders assumed more responsibilities) (Winchester, 2003).
Cooperatives offer additional benefits to participating districts. According to one review of the research, "The most frequently cited benefits of interdistrict collaborative programs and services are improvements in efficiency, quality and/or equity" (Public Management Associates, 2008). A 2007 survey of district business administrators conducted by the Institute on Educational Law and Policy identified the following other benefits of shared services in New Jersey's school districts: service improvement, reduction in workload or elimination of redundancy, availability of otherwise unavailable services, convenience and compliance with legal regulations. Another research review (Eggers et al.,2005) suggests that cooperatives help member districts do the following: standardize processes, attract more highly qualified staff via pooled resources, achieve efficiencies without relinquishing their independence manage the risk associated with fluctuations in enrollments and need for services, and avoid the political opposition that often arises from proposals to consolidate schools or districts.
Reflecting on lessons learned from cooperative efforts in Wisconsin, Elsass (2003) recommends that partnering entities conduct feasibility and needs assessments early on to identify the resources and needs each district brings to the process. He also suggests that members establish procedures for dissolving the cooperative should it become ineffective or no longer serve its original purposes.
Caitlin Howley is a senior manager of education and research in the Appalachian regional office of ICF International, where rural education is her primary research interest. Kimberly Hambrick is the regional director of ICF's Appalachian office, where she specializes in evaluation of education interventions and technical assistance.