How About Rural School DE-Consolidation?

The optimum size for a school district is about 3,000 students. That's far smaller than many school districts. So why no de-consolidate districts?

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Recent studies of school district consolidation have come to the surprising finding that districts bigger than 3,000 students were likely running at less than optimal efficiency.  The evidence suggests that deconsolidation maybe be a much more fruitful path to efficiency than consolidation.

Charming.  One hundred years of pain and struggle to consolidate schools has created a system in which the organizations that school more than half of the nation’s students are fiscally inefficient. Meanwhile, our own research (and that of numerous colleagues) suggests that big schools and districts also tend to depress achievement, most viciously in low-wealth communities.

The complaints against schooling have been loud, unfair, and off the mark since at least 1983. The “crisis” in public education was a manufactured calamity, but the consolidation of schools was a disaster for real, one hardly anyone is talking about.

What follows is partly speculation, but the speculation is prompted by research.  

First, though, a warning: “Deconsolidation” has no research base at all. It’s a new and intriguing idea.  But the research on diseconomies of scale does exist and it suggests that the districts that serve most students are way, way too big for way, way too many students.

Too Big to Work 

Maybe school consolidation “worked” for a while, but to judge from the size at which operational costs are minimized (3,000 students for an entire district and with serious inefficiencies becoming evident at 15,000 students), district consolidation has proceeded to a scale at which the claim of “working” appears hollow. (See this article in the Yonder and our full-length policy brief.) 

Huge districts can work of course, but mostly they don’t work very well. The size-related odds, after all, are stacked heavily against efficiency and effectiveness. The larger the district—on average—the less favorable the odds.

Worse still, with huge size, the odds are stacked against kids, families, educators, urban neighborhoods, and rural communities. This insight is simply a logical extension of the twin literatures on the relationship of size to cost and achievement. Consolidation has probably outlived its educational and economic usefulness and is now living quite beyond its means, and possibly society’s as well. 

Perhaps the concept of volume manufacture of schooled people would work if we would just ship our educational raw material—our kids—to China, too, as we do timber and parts?  One sees pretty quickly, in this light, how that business model doesn’t work at all. The US has already tried this model with Indian education, shipping western Indian kids to eastern schools where their cultures and families would be beaten (or worse) out of them. The victims certainly didn’t think it “worked,” and in the end it turned out that they were the proper judges of “what works,” even if they weren’t professional educators or politicians.

Education is culture; it is the daily life of humans embedded in families, communities, and neighborhoods.  In this light, schools “work” where the staff knows the kids and the community—and the culture. We seem, nonetheless, to be moving in the opposite direction.

At the top of the pile of “large districts” are the nation’s 500 largest, the smallest of which enrolled 15,953 students in 2008-2009.  Those 500 districts house 43% of all US students.  But at the very top of the entire pile of 17,953 US districts are the 100 largest, and the smallest of these 100 districts housed 47,488 students. 

Very unfortunately, then, the nation seems to be stuck today with huge, bureaucratic schooling “enterprises” for most kids—those schooled in districts (3,351 of them) larger than 3,000 students, the estimated enrollment where cost efficiencies have been shown to be maximized.  There’s variability around this average, so that districts of 1,000-5,000 might be predicted to harbor the capacity for efficiency and effectiveness.  But the 500 largest and certainly the 100 largest are likely to be too large. 

Frank Robertson recently (2007; see citation below) tested the assumption that the largest 100 districts were economically efficient simply because consolidation had always been promoted to achieve economies of scale. Certainly those 100 would be paragons of efficiency, were the assumption correct.  Here’s the sound bite for his conclusion:

The results of the analysis indicate that none of the hypotheses proposed are valid. Instead, the data indicates that significant inefficiencies exist in large districts. While the results confirm the findings of most previous research, they are unique in that they are based upon a nationwide sample.  

In other words, the assumption of efficiency is generally false. Another of Robertson’s findings should be mentioned:  all else equal (i.e., with controls in place for socioeconomic status—but not school size), huge districts depress college entrance exam scores.  That’s a finding that echoes a series of studies (some by us) that go back 20 years.

So what are these identifiable “diseconomies of scale”?  They haven’t been explored empirically, but researchers have offered speculations.  

Robertson theorized that huge districts were trapped between the need to accommodate the diversity that size imposes (languages, ethnicities, class differences) using the inflexibility (or nonresponsiveness) that huge size (huge bureaucracy) also imposes. It’s an opinion, but Robertson also summarizes the diseconomies mentioned (if not confirmed) by other researchers working in this new line of inquiry: “stronger teacher unions, leveled up wages, inefficiencies attributed to agency costs, and increased transportation costs for children as well as supplies.”

Another study (by Duncombe & Yinger, 2007) identified five diseconomies in large districts:  

(1) higher transportation costs; 

(2) labor relations effect (i.e., seniority hiring); 

(3) lower motivation and effort from educators (i.e., working for a large bureaucracy is demoralizing); 

(4) lower motivation and effort from students (i.e., being housed in a large bureaucracy is demoralizing); 

(5) lower parental involvement (i.e., dealing with a large bureaucracy is demoralizing).  

This sums it up nicely—but these are just speculations, and one of us is cited by these researchers as a source of such assumptions! Much work, then, remains to be done even to identify the particular diseconomies involved, but the evidence for the overall claim that huge school bureaucracies are economically inefficient seems, for the moment, pretty solid.

That parenthetical chorus in three of the five hypothesized diseconomies is worth highlighting: “a large bureaucracy is demoralizing!”  It’s a speculation based on our own experience and that of just about everyone we know.  

Social psychology has probably established this experience as reflecting a principal of human interaction and belongingness.  One could call it human scale.  And therein perhaps lies the most serious diseconomy of scale in American education.  

Although education is the quintessential human enterprise (we’re among the most learning of all animals on the planet), we conduct the schooling for so many of our kids on a grandly inhuman basis.  

Thinking About Rural District Deconsolidation

Aren’t huge districts really an urban problem?  Is deconsolidation a reasonable policy option for improving fiscal efficiency and academic performance among rural districts? 

To answer those questions, we need to reconsider the primary motivations for both consolidation and deconsolidation: fiscal efficiency and academic outcomes.  One is economic and the other is educational.  They are related, since schooling provided by the state spends “taxpayer dollars.” But optimizing both simultaneously is quite tricky, and it requires more knowledge about how size influences achievement, which itself is tricky. 

Complicated?  Maybe, but it’s not rocket science.

Let’s first look at large rural districts. For the 2008-09 school year, a total of 677 school districts classified as rural by the National Center for Education Statistics reported enrollments of more 3,000 (the average size for optimal efficiency). Perhaps surprisingly, 59 of those rural districts reported enrollments of 15,000 or more (the level at which serious diseconomies of scale begin to accrue). The ten largest rural districts are all located in the southeastern U.S., where state-mandated consolidation has resulted in county-wide school districts for the most part. All have student populations of 30,000 or more.

Based on these figures, some rural school districts in the U.S. would be predicted to be fiscally inefficient. These large districts spend a lot of money, and so deconsolidation perhaps offers the potential to achieve efficiencies that might eliminate some waste. It’s clearly an idea worth considering. 

Imposing wholesale deconsolidation, however, would not likely achieve the anticipated benefits. Impositions are just that—unwelcome and unwanted. They generate ill-will, resentment, and sabotage. Permitting deconsolidation (or secession) is quite another matter, but rarely has it been permitted, much less accomplished, and probably never encouraged. It may be time to reconsider such prohibitions in state education policy.   

The second primary motivation for consolidation (and deconsolidation) is academic outcomes. Here the benefits of deconsolidation are even clearer. A sizable and consistent body of empirical evidence supports the claim that making school districts smaller can be expected, on average, to reduce the negative influence on achievement of characteristics associated with achievement gaps (i.e., across a continuum of smallest to largest, achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status, race, gender have been shown to be narrower in smaller districts). Put simply, making school districts smaller (here, through deconsolidation) should result in desirable academic outcomes in many districts.  The increases, on average, would be modest, except in large districts with large schools located in low-wealth areas.  Smaller schools in smaller districts serving impoverished communities (schools with as few as 300 students in grades K-12, and in districts no larger than 3,000 students) would predictably see the largest associated improvements over time.

So what would rural deconsolidation look like? First, it would refashion existing districts to align with actual communities. A county isn’t a community, and even the smallest rural community has a name and a sense of place associated with it.

Second, deconsolidation would provide for authentic school engagement across the community.  In deconsolidated school districts, a broad swath of citizens could make decisions about education (and school finance) that have a direct impact on their children and their community. 

The Difficult Politics of Urban Deconsolidation

This image of local people providing local schooling, of course, ignores the influence of large state and federal education bureaucracies and legislatures over-eager to call so many of the shots. This eagerness to call these shots is driven these days by a frenzy to sustain American global economic reach in the face of Chinese and Indian challenges. The federal frenzy, famously encased in the No Child Left Behind law, reinforces the eagerness of the states.

Deconsolidation and de-centralization seem unlikely policy tools in such circumstances.

While education policy might conceivably permit secession and deconsolidation in rural places, such seemingly mild measures might be less promising in the big city political environment. Imagining deconsolidation anywhere might be difficult, although we have seen it happen occasionally in rural places; but just thinking the thought in the case of Los Angeles or New York is a troubling experiment. 

How can one even have the conversation, given the scale of the vested interests and the scale of daunting power involved?  How could it be accomplished fairly?  Could the effort be formatively evaluated in a useful way so that implementation problems could be addressed instead of spiraling out of hand?  

Although district-level deconsolidation in big cities seems unlikely, urban districts have pioneered the establishment of new smaller schools. In New York the effort has been underway for decades, where even the hurry-up-and-do-it approach of the Gates Foundation documented improved outcomes.  

Elsewhere the Gates Foundation abandoned its efforts when immediate results didn’t materialize; part of the problem, as urban small-school reformers have told us, were the machinations within huge city-district bureaucracies. But despite the craven withdrawal of Gates, efforts continue in this direction across the urban diaspora (yes, some of us rural types regard urban folks as displaced neighbors).  

The U.S. Department of Education’s Small Learning Communities Program, the Center for Collaborative Education, the Coalition of Essential Schools, the School Redesign Network, and the Chicago Small School Workshops have supported small-school reform in cities—and many efforts will carry on despite the abandonment of what rural writer Raymond Williams called “the God Fathers.”  

Of course, it’s true that a district with a remarkably advantaged (that is, rich) residents has much better prospects of doing quite well, even with 10,000 or more students. They are the schools where pupils are most likely to secure the “best” teaching by the “best” teachers. 

The sorts of things done in such privileged districts—that is, cultivating the elite of the next generation—might not actually be doing American democracy much good.  Their approach to mass production of such elites has rarely (perhaps never) been studied.  Instead they are held up as paragons for the rest of us. Nevertheless, large suburban school districts (not all such districts are affluent, of course) also likely experience diseconomies of scale.  Pulling suburban bureaucracies back to a human scale would have predictable benefits, too, including fiscal efficiency, but perhaps also increased democratic intelligence and deeper connections to community life and issues.

The huge size of urban districts will likely remain the elephant in the room. These behemoths won’t be going anywhere, and their huge bureaucracies will likely remain a persistent problem.

Of course, the ultimate consolidation is to have no districts at all, with all power passed on to the state and federal bureaucracies. It’s a scary thought, but we’ve now been moving that way for many decades. Some leaders, then, might view the organizational model of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, each of which operates as a single district within their respective jurisdictions, as the final resting place for troubling debates about district size.  No districts, no debates: problem solved. 

 In that case, if citizens want to debate issues of school size, they won’t even have local boards where they can turn.  They’ll be dealing with the bureaucracy of the State Education Agency and perhaps, some day, the Ministry of National Education. 

Despite such troubling reflections, and the accumulating evidence about the demoralizing qualities of huge bureaucracies, district size itself can seemingly undermine the best-conceived reform efforts.  

There’s a lesson from the reform literature that might apply, however. Deborah Meier wrote that a school should be sufficiently small that the entire faculty could gather around a single table.  

A similar principle might apply to district organization: the entire central office should be able to gather around a single table.  In this light, 3,000 students might actually be a reasonable maximum size for an educationally productive district, and not just the one-size-fits all optimum for a fiscally efficient one.  

(For those who want to track down some original sources, we refer to: Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2007). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Education Finance and Policy, 2(4), 341-375.  And, Robertson, F. (2007). Economies of scale for large school districts: A national study with local implications. Social Science Journal, 44, 620-629.) 


The authors are professors at the Patton School of Education and Human Services at Ohio University. 



Topics: Education

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