Consolidating small school districts could save some states millions of dollars and offer possibilities for improving the efficiency of district management, according to a report from the Center for American Progress released at an event here this morning.
Ulrich Boser, the report's author, joined Charles Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, Doris Terry Williams, the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, and Cynthia G. Brown, the vice president for education policy at CAP, for a panel discussion of Size Matters: A Look at School-District Consolidation.
The new report starts with a brief history of why district lines look so different state-to-state and even within states. Since 1940, it shows, the number of districts in the country has shrunk from 117,000 to about 14,000, due to earlier efforts at consolidation.
Further consolidations have been on the radar in several states: Iowa financially incentivized consolidations, for instance, and governors in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have also discussed consolidating districts. But public interest in consolidations has waned, Boser writes.
Still, the report estimates that New Jersey alone could save as much as $100 million by consolidating districts, and that California could save as much as $64 million. The report focused not on small rural districts, but on small districts in populated areas that could benefit from having greater economies of scale.
The report's main recommendations are that states tailor the size of school districts to individual communities; that they reform school-management systems and increase school-level autonomy in order to increase efficiency; and that states consider creating regional agencies like Boards of Cooperative Education Services, or BOCES, which help districts share services.
Boser said at today's event that the ideal district size was between about 2,000 and 4,000 students.
Though rural districts were not a focus of the report, they were a focus of the discussion today in Washington. Williams cautioned that suggesting that districts with fewer than 1,000 students were too small, or bad, could imply that many rural districts need to combine or restructure, even though that might not be in students' best interest.
"In the South and Southwest, rural districts have been consolidated to the hilt," she said. "We've reached the economies of scale that make sense."
The conversation also touched on how race and community can play into conversations about district boundary lines. Williams discussed Halifax County, N.C., which, unlike most counties in the state, has three districts with distinct racial demographics instead of one countywide district. Consolidating the districts has been a political no-go despite the fact that it might make financial or academic sense, she said.
And in New Jersey, where districts are drawn in "an incredibly complicated way," Barone said that "heavily white districts are often next to heavily black districts." He said that while it might not immediately come to mind in the North, "I think part of the motivation must be racial at this point."
The discussion also touched on some of the softer or less direct implications of consolidations. Shuttering a school in a community can lead young families in an area to move out, for instance, and can reduce a community's sense of cohesion. Boser emphasized the need to consider each potential consolidation in context.
You can watch the full discussion here:
The conversation about merging districts is timely: The fate of small districts in Michigan, many of which are running at a deficit and several of which have had to be dissolved, has spurred a statewide conversation about consolidating districts there. Meanwhile, the largest consolidation in the nation's history is happening in Memphis. That consolidation might be short-lived, however, as suburban towns in the area have voted to create their own new districts. The Memphis story and a similar debate about new school districts in Baton Rouge are evidence of the way that race and class can play into conversations about school district boundary lines.
The Center for American Progress has, with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, been focusing on district governance and structures this year. They released a book called Education Governance for the Twenty-first Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform earlier this year.