AS&U 100: The 200 Largest U.S. School Districts, 2013-14

Sept. 1, 2015
Three states continue to dominate the list of the nation’s largest public school systems.

From year to year, the change in enrollment numbers for most of the largest U.S. public school districts is gradual, if not glacial. The numbers from 2013-14 show that the four largest districts are the same as they were 25 years ago—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. Three-quarters of the districts that were among the 100 largest in the United States in 1988-89 still can be found on the 2013-14 list.

But a look at some of the districts that have joined the list in the last quarter-century, as well as districts that no longer appear in the top 100, provides a good idea of where growth is occurring in the nation, and where areas are declining.

Of the 25 districts that were not in the 100 largest in 1988-89 but are on the list in 2013-14, 16 are in Texas, California or Florida. Those states dominate the 2013-14 list: 20 districts are in Texas, 14 in Florida and 12 in California.

Many of the districts that have grown significantly in the last 25 years are in suburban areas; those that have seen the sharpest enrollment declines tend to be urban systems, where population may be declining or students have opted to attend the increasing number of charter schools.

For instance, the five suburban districts in the top 100 from the Atlanta area—Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties—saw their aggregate enrollment nearly double from 1988 to 2013: from 268,625 students to 526,067. Over those same years, the Atlanta school district experienced an enrollment decline of 21 percent—from 63,448 to 50,131.

The largest one-year jump among large-enrollment systems—from 112th to 17th—wasn’t caused by either rapid growth or decline, but by political upheaval. In 2013-14, the Memphis school district ceased to exist, and its nearly 110,000 students became part of the surrounding Shelby County (Tenn.) system. As a result, enrollment in Shelby County schools more than tripled, and its enrollment of about 150,000 sent the district soaring up the list. (Spoiler alert: Shelby County’s student numbers for 2014-15 will show a drop of 30,000 or so because several Memphis suburbs opted out of the county district and started municipal school systems in 2014.)

In higher education, the list of institutions with the largest enrollment continues to be led by the for-profit University of Phoenix, whose online operation enables it to take on a massive amount of students without having to provide physical space to accommodate them.

--by Mike Kennedy

(A note on methodology: The enrollment numbers for 2013-14 come in most cases from data compiled by the departments of education in the various states, or from individual school districts. The 2012-2013 numbers are from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Higher-education enrollment data is from the NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.)

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