School District Consolidation

posted 12/11/09

The Parents’ Campaign supports the consolidation of school districts when an obvious benefit to student achievement would result. 

Over the years, Mississippi has undergone significant consolidation of its public school districts, dropping from a high of well over 1,000 districts as recently as the mid-1900s to the current 149 with an additional 3 agricultural high schools that operate independently. Across the United States, the number of school districts within a state varies widely. Texas leads the way with over 1,000 school districts serving 4.5-million students. Hawaii and the District of Columbia each have only one school district.  Mississippi ranks slightly below the middle of the pack (21st of 51) with 152 districts serving half a million students. 13 states have fewer than 100 school districts, and 10 states have more than 500 districts. 

Students per District
 
Among states, the average number of students per district provides a good basis for comparison, and the number varies widely. Mississippi ranks at the midpoint (24th of 51) with 3,257 students per district and is slightly below the national average of 3,387 students per district. Within Mississippi, the actual number of students per district varies widely, too, and that is likely the case in other states. Vermont has the fewest students per district with 268; Hawaii has by far the most with 180,728. 7 states have more than 10,000 students per district, and 7 states have fewer than 1,000.

Click here to see States' Students per District table.

Reasons for School Consolidation
 
The primary driver for school consolidation over the years has been cost savings or efficiency. Perhaps an even better reason to consider school consolidation is academic achievement and the quality of education provided Mississippi school children – assuring that all students have access to excellent schools. The research on school consolidation and school/district size provides some insight into each of these considerations.

Cost Savings & Efficiency
As with most things, economies of scale play a role in school district efficiency. Research has shown that combining very small districts does yield a cost savings – a significant cost savings when districts are very, very small. Not surprisingly, the rate of savings diminishes as the size of the combined districts increases, reaching a point of diminishing return, and then moving rather quickly to a point at which the size of the district is so large that it becomes inefficient and administrative costs increase. National research has shown this trend consistently, and Mississippi’s own experience with consolidation and district size has yielded the same result
.

National Research. According to the Center for Policy Research (Does School Consolidation Cut Costs?, 2001), consolidation is likely to lower the costs of two 300-pupil districts by over 20%, to lower the costs of two 900-pupil districts by 7 to 9%, and to have little, if any, impact on the costs of two 1,500-pupil districts.  A consolidated school district with over 3,000 students becomes inefficient and has higher administrative costs, on average, than did the smaller districts that were merged.


Mississippi Experience. In 2010, then-governor Haley Barbour established the Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure for the purpose of studying and making recommendations concerning the consolidation of Mississippi school districts.  The commission made the following recommendations:

1. Consolidate the procurement of certain items such as buses, copy paper, and janitorial
    supplies;
2. Provide incentives for school districts to consolidate voluntarily;
3. Provide the State Board of Education the authority to consolidate school districts that are placed 
    under conservatorship;
4. Consolidate back-office operations and support services of Mississippi school districts.

Click here to see details of the commission's report.

As Mississippi has merged school districts over the years, the result has been similar to the national effect. Our state now has 34 counties in which there is only 1 school district. The administrative costs in those districts, on average, are higher than the state average. Click here to see the counties with only 1 school district and their administrative costs. This chart also provides districts’ student achievement indices (QDIs), which pertains to the following information.

Academic Achievement
The apparent effects of consolidation on academic achievement are mixed and are difficult to pinpoint. Gardner et al. (2000) and Schreiber (2002) found a positive relationship between large school size and academic achievement; academic and extracurricular offerings were improved, and student test scores, generally, improved as well. 

Lee and Smith (1995) and Harrison (2003) found the opposite to be true. In those studies, students performed better in smaller schools and school districts than did students of similar background who were in larger schools and districts.

Nationally, each of the 5 states with the highest academic achievement (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut) has over 150 school districts. Four of the top five academic performers have a below-average ratio of students to school districts; Connecticut has a slightly-above-average ratio of students to school districts (see table).

Click here
to see States' Achievement table.

As is suggested by the wide variance in the district sizes and student performance, whether there exists a causal relationship between district size and student achievement is difficult to nail down, given the number of variables at play. 

One additional factor worth noting in Mississippi is the issue of the breadth and depth of available talent. Certainly it would be easier to find 100 superior superintendents than to find 152. The same logic applies to other administrative positions.

 


 
 
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