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Large districts or small? Evidence is mixed, North Carolina lawmakers are told

A North Carolina legislative committee is looking at the pros and cons of breaking up some fo the state's school systems into smaller units.

North Carolina legislators studying whether to split up school districts into smaller units have been told by researchers that there's not enough evidence to prove that such a change would be an improvement.

The Raleigh News & Observer reports that two researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill told a committee of state lawmakers that there's not much research on school district size, so there are concerns about whether to rely on the "mixed bag" of data to make major decisions.

“There’s no optimal size," said Kevin Bastian, associate director of the university's Education Policy Initiative. "There’s no one size fits all."

The committee is looking at the potential issues involved with breaking up any of North Carolina's 115 school districts into smaller ones.

Bastian says the long-term nationwide trend has been toward consolidating districts instead of breaking them up. The number of U.S. districts has dropped from 117,000 in the 1940s to 87,000 in 2009.

There's research that points to positive academic outcomes from both smaller and larger school districts, according to Bastian. He cautioned that much of the research is from the 1980s and 1990s.

When it comes to financial efficiency of school district size, the research is scattered all across the map, according to Eric Houck, an associate professor of leadership and policy at the University of North Carolina.

“There is no real consensus about the relationship between district size and cost," Houck says.

Smaller districts may seem to be more efficient in producing better student test scores, but Houck says that may be because their schools are  smaller. Houck says there may not be improvements districts became smaller, but still had large schools.

Houck says some research suggests that districts become less efficient when they have more than 15,000 students. Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg are the state's two largest districts with, respectively, 160,000 and 147,000 students.

If those two systems were split up, Bastian says they'd likely need to be divided into many districts to capture potential benefits. especially to get to the "sweet spot" of 10,000 to 15,000 students.

The committee is supposed to present a report to the legislature by May 1.

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