Years ago, someone asked the infamous criminal Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. “Because that's where the money is,” he said.
And when someone asks why American School & University highlights the largest 100 school districts each September, the answer is, “Because that's where the students are.”
The top 100 public school districts in the United States represent less than 1 percent of the more than 14,000 school districts, but in 2004-05, they accounted for more than 20 percent of the nation's public school enrollment — 10,795,068 students. Here's another way to look at it: If you started combining the enrollments of the nation's smallest school districts to reach the number of students in the top 100, you would have to include nearly 13,000 school systems.
The money spent by the 100 largest districts to educate children and build facilities is impressive, too. In the 2003-04 school year, the 100 largest districts of 2004-05 spent more than $106 billion — more than 26 percent of what all districts spent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the end of fiscal 2004, the top 100 had outstanding long-term debt — the source of capital-improvement funds for most systems — of more than $62 billion, 24 percent of the total long-term debt for the nation's districts.
From year to year, most of the districts on the list remain the same; enrollment shifts typically occur gradually, unless a district merges (e.g., the Guilford County (N.C.) district, which consolidated with the Greensboro and High Point districts in the early 1990s) or breaks apart (as may happen in Omaha, Neb., and in some districts in Utah). In 2004-05, four districts were not on the previous year's list — Osceola County, Fla.; Brownsville, Texas; Henrico County, Va.; and Omaha, Neb. Those that fell from the list were Seattle; Shelby County, Tenn.; Newark, N.J.; and the Ysleta district in El Paso, Texas.
At the higher-education level, the 20 colleges with the largest enrollment remains virtually unchanged — 19 of the 20 schools are the same as the year before, and the only institution to break into the top 20 in 2004-05 was ranked 21st in 2003-04. At the top of the list is the University of Phoenix-Online Campus. Unburdened by the limits of geography or the need for classroom space, the online college has lapped the field with more than 115,000 students — more than twice the next largest campus.
Looking at elementary and secondary school enrollment trends over 15 years gives a clearer picture of the changes in the U.S. public school landscape. The top 100 districts in 2004-05 had 10,795,068 students; in 1989-90, those districts had 8,607,247 students. Eighteen districts that were not in the 1989-90 list are now in the top 100. The Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) district has climbed all the way to 40th; in 1989-90, it was the 102nd largest district. The top 100 district that has made the greatest climb in the rankings is Osceola County, Fla. In 1989, it was the 296th largest district with a modest enrollment of 17,769. By 2004-05, it had grown by 166 percent and was the 96th largest district.
The districts that have declined the most over 15 years are mainly urban districts. Washington, D.C.; Orleans Parish, La.; and East Baton Rouge, La.; each declined by more than 20 percent from 1989 to 2004. Detroit lost more than 34,000 students over that time, a drop of 19.4 percent, and fell from 7th largest to the 15th largest district. Other districts that experienced double-digit percentage declines from 1989 to 2004 were Baltimore (city of); Atlanta; Portland; Jefferson Parish, La.; and Granite, Utah.
As has been the case for many years, the list of the 100 districts is dominated by three states — California, Texas and Florida. They account for 43 of the 100 largest districts, as well as 43 percent of the students in the top 100.
The double whammy of population growth and countywide districts gives Florida bragging rights for most students represented — the 14 Florida districts in the top 100 had 1,884,277 students in 2004-05, including seven school systems with more than 100,000 students. Texas had the most districts on the list — 16, the same as last year. California had 13 districts in the top 100.
In past years, the enrollment data for the AS&U 100 list has come from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but as of the magazine's deadline, the agency had not yet released the 2004-05 information. NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider said that just prior to the planned release of the enrollment data, an analyst discovered an error, and the entire database had to be redone.
Instead, the data for 2004-05 comes from state departments of education or individual school districts. The financial data in the charts is for 2003-04 and comes from a U.S. Census Report, “Public Education Finances 2004.”
Kennedy can be reached at [email protected].
Breaking up is hard to do
Historically, the number of school districts in the United States has dwindled, and mergers of school systems have led to districts that serve larger numbers of students. But in a few cases, steps have been taken to reduce the size of districts, including some among the top 100 districts:
In Orem, Utah, some residents want the city to break away from the Alpine district (79th on the 2004-05 list with 52,825 students). A group called Friends of Orem School District argues that the large size of the Alpine district “results in an unresponsive ‘one size fits all’ management paradigm where parents don't have adequate input into their children's education.”
Legislation approved last year allows Utah cities to try to establish their own districts. A feasibility study by the city of Orem found that an Orem-only district would have about 15,900 students; a district made up of the cities of Orem, Lindon, Pleasant Grove and Vineyard would have 25,770 students — about half of the Alpine enrollment.
The arguments of the pro-breakup group did not convince Orem officials. The city council voted in August not to put the breakup question on the November ballot.
In Nebraska, the Omaha district (ranked 99th in 2004-05) is to be split into three districts in 2008 as part of legislation approved earlier this year. The state legislature decided to split the district as an alternative to the district's plans to claim territory in neighboring school systems as part of a “One City, One School District” proposal.
The plan could be changed before it goes into effect. Opponents of the plan have challenged the breakup. They contend that the division of the Omaha district is mostly along racial lines and amounts to state-sponsored segregation.
The devastation of the Orleans Parish (La.) school district caused by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina has led to the virtual dismantling of that system. The district, already struggling academically and financially, had more than 60,000 students before the hurricane. It was ranked the 64th-largest district in 2004-05.
This year, many fewer students are being served in the Orleans Parish by public schools — a combination of charter schools, schools under the control of the state of Louisiana in a “recovery district,” and a handful of schools still managed by what remains of the Orleans Parish district.
Enrollment flat, costs not
While student numbers have climbed rapidly in other districts, enrollment in the Anne Arundel County (Md.) district hasn't changed much in the last decade. In 1995, it had 71,383 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers peaked in 2001 at a little more than 75,000, and in 2004, it was the 45th largest district in the United States and reported an enrollment of 73,991. Over the next 10 years, projections show minimal growth in district enrollment.
But even with relatively stable enrollment numbers, a district the size of Anne Arundel can see its facility costs accumulate quickly. Growth may be held in check overall, but a large district still can have pockets of booming development where new classrooms are needed. Even if growth is not providing an impetus for new facilities, the continual aging of existing school buildings necessitates expensive renovations or replacements.
How expensive? The Anne Arundel district commissioned a facilities master plan earlier this year from MGT of America that put the price tag at nearly $1.5 billion over 10 years. It calls for spending $453 million on elementary facilities, $431 million on middle schools and $532 million on high schools. Upgrades of countywide facilities would account for another $75 million.
The consultant assessed each school's condition, how well space was being utilized, its technology readiness and its educational suitability, and used the data to establish priorities. Facilities that have the poorest conditions or that exceed capacity the most should be upgraded first, the report recommends.
Phase 1, which would take three years, calls for replacing eight elementary schools — at costs ranging from $17 million to $25 million per facility — and two high schools, each of which would cost more than $114 million. In phases 2 and 3, each of which also would take three years, most of the recommended projects are renovations or additions.
The report also urges the district to take steps to utilize its existing buildings more effectively.
“A key component of the facilities master plan is the efficient use of existing facilities,” the report says. “One of the primary components in accomplishing this objective is the need to update boundaries regularly … It needs to occur quickly and at regular intervals.”
The consultant also recommended that Anne Arundel end its heavy reliance on portable classrooms. “The use of portables as a long-term solution is counterproductive,” the report says. “When portables reach a point of housing more than 10 percent of the student body at a particular school, the strain on the core facilities causes deterioration at a more rapid pace and results in higher deferred-maintenance costs.”
Even cyberschools have facility needs
On the list of the U.S. colleges and universities with the largest enrollments in 2004-05, the University of Phoenix-Online Campus clearly stands out.
It is the only institution on the list that operates predominantly online. That enabled the school to boost its enrollment by nearly 44,000 students in 2004-05 without having to come up with the classrooms, desks and office space needed on a “bricks-and-mortar” campus.
Still, the University of Phoenix-Online Campus does need space. It is employing growing numbers of people to help run the school. For instance, notes public relations director Joe Cockrell, the school's call center receives 87,500 calls a week.
So, the university is building a 36-acre campus in Phoenix. The Riverpoint Center will have 600,000 square feet of space to accommodate more than 7,000 workers, as well as the school's network of computer servers and other technology infrastructure. The project also includes two parking structures that will hold more than 4,000 vehicles.
The center is scheduled to open in 2007. Meanwhile, enrollment for 2006 surpasses 175,000.