Bigger or Smaller?

School districts in the United States range in enrollment from just a few students to more than a million. Their borders may or may not follow the boundary lines of cities or towns, and their sizes range from tiny geographical areas to, in the case of Hawaii, an entire state. Among the 100 largest public school districts, and as evidenced in states such as Florida, countywide systems are the most prevalent type.

In Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, most if not all of the public school districts follow county lines. In areas with dense urban or suburban populations, countywide systems can grow to more than 300,000 students, as in Miami-Dade County, Fla., or Clark County, Nev.

Throughout most of the 20th century, in the name of greater efficiency and more educational opportunities for students, the number of school districts has plummeted and their size has increased through consolidation. The economic argument for consolidation often run head-on into political realities—small communities strongly resist giving up their local districts. But when economic times are difficult, the push for consolidation picks up momentum.

Several states in recent years have looked at ways to encourage district consolidation. A study conducted earlier this year in Michigan estimated that the state could save as much as $612 million a year if it consolidated school districts on a countywide basis. The study, by Professor Sharif M. Shakrani of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, projects that countywide consolidation would reduce transportation costs by 18 percent, administrative costs by 15 percent, operating costs by 8 percent, and instruction support costs by 4 percent.

“State and local boards of education, operating under pressure to run schools efficiently and meet national and state performance goals, must consider administrative options such as consolidation or the coordination of services to reduce operating costs and improve the quality of education for all students,” Shakrani concludes.

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