The 'Too Many School Districts' Myth

There are too many school districts, according to state officials. Even though student enrollment is declining, more school districts open every year, these officials say, putting existing districts under financial pressure.

Though this may seem like a school finance and administrative issue, the “too many school districts” narrative is often used to criticize charter schools. Juxtaposing Michigan’s decreasing enrollment with the rising number of school districts (entirely driven by charter schools) is just a way to complain about the fact that more charter schools are opening.

Charter schools in Michigan are legally defined as “districts,” even though most are single buildings enrolling far fewer students than Michigan's conventional districts.

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Madison-Carver Academy, an elementary school serving 300 K-6 students in Detroit, is a “district.” Detroit Public Schools, with close to 100 buildings and serving more than 40,000 students, is also a “district.”

In fact, about 80 percent of charter school “districts” have just a single school building, compared to just over 10 percent of conventional school districts. The truth is, the enrollment/district comparison does not provide any useful information — because it pretends large districts such as DPS are statistically equal to single-building charter schools such as Madison-Carver Academy.

A better approach is to compare school buildings to student enrollment. And there, Michigan is on track. As you can see in the chart below, the total number of school buildings, counting both charter schools and district schools, has followed the same trend as the number of students.

Despite the addition of more than 300 new charter school buildings since 1996, the number of students per school building in Michigan has hardly changed. There were 441 students per school building in 1996 and about 448 now — a mere 1.5 percent increase. There is only a small difference between charters and conventional schools: 407 students per charter school building and 453 per district school building.

State officials should worry less about the quantity of public schools and more about the quality of educational options available to Michigan families.

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