Over the last century, the number of school districts in the United States has shrunk even as the population has ballooned. Today, the average American public school district enrolls about 3,600 students.
Even so, over the last decade more than a dozen states either instituted school district consolidations and mergers, or have attempted to do so. In each case, supporters have argued that larger districts lead to economies of scale and increased productivity.
The latest study to examine the issue appeared last August. Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress came to some measured conclusions about district size, the most prominent of which was that “many states have large percentages of small, nonremote districts that may represent hundreds of millions of dollars in lost potential capacity.” In particular he named New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Texas, California, Vermont, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana and Wisconsin as states that could save money through targeted district mergers.
Boser did fine work, but seems overly concerned with the spending of these tiny districts while the flip side of the question goes unexamined. Having just compiled and analyzed per-pupil spending for all U.S. districts, and because I have frequently and forcefully expressed opinions on the issue, I decided to examine the differences in per-pupil spending between the largest districts in each state and the rest of the districts in each state.
I used the largest five percent in enrollment as the cutoff. That is, if a state had 100 school districts, I compared the five largest with the other 95. The results were educational. Of the 49 states (Hawaii has a single statewide district), 28 had large districts outspending smaller ones, including five of the 10 Boser listed as experiencing lost capacity.
These findings don’t disprove the claim of higher expenditures for very small districts. On the contrary, in places like Alaska, Montana and New Hampshire the results show some states are paying a premium price for smaller districts. But for some reason, no one wants to break up overly large districts to control costs.
One could just as easily make the argument that large districts in places like Massachusetts, Ohio, New York and Vermont are driving up the overall costs of education in those states.
Most states like to have school district boundaries coincide with city boundaries, but no one cares enough to examine why that it always necessary. Since very small and very large school districts both seem economically inefficient, perhaps states can find a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. That would be a policy discussion worth having.