'Fragmented' School Districts: A Complicated and Controversial Issue

In much of the country, school districts survive even when they have few students. In an era of budget cutbacks, these districts are prime targets for consolidation.
by | April 2016
(Flickr/Phil Roeder)

Cook County, Ill., has nearly 150 elementary and high school districts. Students in the Pittsburgh metro area are assigned to 105 different local districts. More than 500 districts are scattered across Oklahoma, with an average of fewer than 1,300 students enrolled in each.

Numbers such as these have long drawn the ire of policymakers, and in an era of budget cutbacks, “fragmented” school districts serve as prime targets for consolidation. At the beginning of this year, lawmakers in Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma all introduced legislation aimed at merging school districts or combining their administrative duties. But such proposals frequently are met with fierce opposition from parents and teachers.

School districts with very small enrollments are actually quite common across the country. A Governing analysis of federal data from the 2013-2014 school year found that a third of all local districts were made up of only one or two public schools. Nearly half of all districts nationally -- 46 percent -- serve fewer than 1,000 students. While many of these districts are in rural or outlying areas, 2,050 are in metro areas.

Enrollment Districts Share of Total
Less than 1K 5,827 46.1%
1,000 to <2,000 2,350 18.6%
2,000 to <5,000 2,559 20.2%
5,000-10,000 1,033 8.2%
More than 10,000 875 6.9%
Number of Schools Districts Share of Total
1 to 2 4,227 33.4%
3 to 4 3,669 29.0%
5 to 6 1,733 13.7%
7 to 8 841 6.7%
9 to 10 537 4.2%
More than 10 1,637 12.9%

The crux of the pro-consolidation argument is that merging smaller districts will allow for deploying limited resources more efficiently.

The most high-profile recent consolidation fight has played out in Oklahoma, which faces a severe budget shortfall stemming from lower oil revenues. One proposal would consolidate most of the state’s K-8 districts that have earned “D” or “F” ratings with nearby independent districts. State Rep. Lee Denney, the bill’s sponsor, says she wants to cut overhead costs and enable districts to offer a greater variety of subjects -- particularly in math, science and foreign languages -- to better prepare students for college. “In Oklahoma, our rural cities often think we’re trying to take away their community and sense of pride,” she says. “We’re trying to offer the best education we can.”

But Denney’s bill, even though it called for more limited consolidation than other proposals, was still defeated after hundreds of educators and parents descended on the state Capitol for a House committee hearing in February.

John Cox, president of the Oklahoma Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, has seen consolidation bills crop up year after year. Smaller districts, he argues, are actually more efficient than some larger systems, as educators perform multiple duties instead of being hired for one specific job. “We do whatever it takes to keep the school alive and keep it going,” he says. “The closer you can get administration to the parents and children, the more effective you are at getting children to buy into the instruction.”

Parents similarly resist efforts to cede local control, fearing that doing so will lead to schools shutting down. They also contend that if states are going to allow for charter schools, families should have the choice of keeping their children in smaller districts as another alternative.

In terms of enrollment, Oklahoma’s districts are the sixth smallest of any state, averaging 1,293 students. Nationally, the average district enrollment is 3,659 students. At the large-district end of the spectrum are states like Florida, where all K-12 districts are countywide systems.

*Districts with no reported enrollment data or zero students were excluded from calculations

Hawaii is home to the nation’s only statewide public school district. That better enables the state to set policy -- and it forces state leaders to realistically confront the challenges of implementing it, says Tammi Oyadomari-Chun, a state Department of Education assistant superintendent. The Hawaii system, in her view, allows the state to better coordinate with universities and the business community. It also allows state officials to negotiate with only one teachers union. “When action is taken, it really does have an opportunity to reach every student in the state,” Oyadomari-Chun says. A nine-member school board appointed by the governor oversees the system.

But is such a system really more efficient? Elementary and secondary education accounted for 15 percent of Hawaii’s total state expenditures in fiscal 2014, compared with 20 percent for all states, according to a report by the National Association of State Budget Officers. Still, it’s difficult to gauge how much savings any particular consolidation would yield, given how differently districts are structured throughout the country. Oklahoma and other select states have already passed laws that cap local districts’ administrative costs.

It’s not the case that school districts are multiplying. Nationally, the number of independent districts has slowly declined over the past several decades, despite population growth, according to Census of Governments data. In areas where districts continue to proliferate, it’s mostly charter schools driving the growth.

Still, fragmentation is widespread, and it can be particularly stark at the regional or metro level. The Worcester, Mass., region (2,023 students per district) and Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y., (2,423 students per district) have the smallest average enrollments of any metro area reviewed with at least 100,000 students. By comparison, only one local district serves the Las Vegas region, while just four operate in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., area. Both serve well over 300,000 public school students.

Pronounced fragmentation carries several potential drawbacks. For one, inequities in spending can result from a dependence on property taxes that can vary greatly from district to district, says Kori Stroub of Rice University. Another oft-cited concern is that smaller districts lead to more racial segregation. Research on the issue is mixed. A study co-authored by Stroub and Meredith Richards of Southern Methodist University found that metro areas with more fragmented districts have higher levels of racial and ethnic segregation across districts, but less segregation within individual districts.

To better integrate schools, districts in a few areas enter into regional collaborative agreements. One of the oldest such efforts, in the Rochester, N.Y., region, allows students in the Rochester City School District to apply for transfers to some suburban schools, or vice versa. “If you’re in an area with a lot of fragmentation, those surrounding districts will probably be much different,” Stroub says. “Your metropolitan context matters.”

Metro Area School District Data

Data and Methodology

Governing compiled data from the 2013-2014 Local Education Agency Universe Survey published by the National Center for Education Statistics. Only local public school districts were included in calculations; charter districts, state education agencies and other school district types were not included. A small number of districts reported no enrollment data or zero students, which were also excluded from state and metro area averages.