School Districts: Is Less More?

The following article originally appeared in the MIRS newsletter in July 2001 in answer to the question: "Does the number of school districts, at over 560, create an obstacle or a tool for the job of putting into place true educational reforms?"

The proper answer to this question requires some background facts and figures, beginning with the rather remarkable consolidation of Michigan school districts that has taken place over the past century.

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In 1910, when Michigan's total population was a mere 2.8 million, we had 7,333 school districts.  By half a century later in 1960, the number of school districts had shrunk to 2,149, though the state's population had risen by 5 million to 7.8 million.  Today, with population at a hair below 10 million, school districts number 562 (excluding charter schools, each one of which constitutes its own school district).  That represents a reduction in districts of more than 90 percent.

The average number of students per district has ballooned from 105 in 1910 to 1,023 in 1960 to more than 3,000 today.  The student-to-teacher ratio has plunged from 42.9 in 1910 to 36.4 in 1960 to approximately 18 today.  These trends mirror what has generally occurred across the country as well.

With all that district consolidation and reduction in class size, perhaps one would be tempted to assume that both school cost efficiencies and student performance have improved.  But it was nearly three-quarters of a century after these trends began in 1910 that the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared (in 1983): "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."  Record per pupil spending combined with that mediocre performance hardly suggest that we're getting more bang for the bucks. (A superb essay by researcher Mike Antonucci, with corroborating and compelling data, expands on this very point.)

Nonetheless, the argument that Michigan schools would be better off with even further consolidation sounds reasonable and appealing on the surface.  Applying it to our largest county, it goes something like this: In Oakland County, there are 28 school districts in a 910-square mile area.  Each district has an administration (accounting, purchasing, superintendent, personnel director, facilities director, computer systems, etc.), facilities for administration, and so on.  Consolidation would facilitate the elimination of fixed costs between contiguous school districts.  These costs are paid to administer schools, not teach children how to read, write, etc.  Consolidation would squeeze out these costs.

There are multiple problems with that reasoning:

  • School districts can cut certain costs now by engaging in collaborative endeavors, and some are doing it.  Others don't or won't.  But even within districts, opportunities to cut costs and improve quality through competitive contracting for support services like busing, food, and custodial work are ignored by many school boards or resisted by self-serving unions.  Something other than the number of school districts seems to be stifling needed reforms.

  • Mergers and consolidations often yield bigger bureaucracies and higher costs, as attention to individual students deteriorates and discipline problems increase.  This has been precisely the experience time after time.  In Michigan's largest district, Detroit, nearly 60 percent of school employees are non-teachers.

  • The evidence is strong that smaller districts and indeed, smaller schools (not necessarily smaller class size) are more productive and effective than larger ones.  Satisfaction is higher, dropout rates are lower, and waste in administration is less prevalent.  A large number of schools and districts can enhance competition and innovation, and can give students and parents more opportunities.  Consolidation and centralization have made it harder for parents to be involved in their children's education because district decision-makers are necessarily more bureaucratic, more beholden to multiple competing interests, and more distant.

  • There are other methods by which we can achieve reform that are more promising than playing with the number of districts.

Incidentally, in 1993, the Michigan Education Association (the state's largest union of cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and teachers) proposed a plan that would drastically reduce the number of school districts down to just 14 and, among other things, give each district the ability to levy its own income tax on residents.  One of the MEA's proposed districts consisted of the entire Upper Peninsula!  Can you imagine a concerned parent from Ironwood who wants his/her voice to be heard about a school board matter driving all the way to Sault Ste. Marie for a meeting?  Needless to say, that was not a reform plan; it was a self-serving scheme to cut parents out and jack up spending.

All reforms intended to improve the quality of public education fall into just three categories: those dealing with rules, those involving resources, and those concerned with incentives.

Rules-based reforms include such things as extending school days and the school year, changing teacher certification and school accreditation requirements, imposing national and state testing, enacting stricter dress codes, and yes, tinkering once again with the number of school districts.  Research has shown that these reforms, while causing occasional marginal improvements, have failed to turn around a large-scale decline in education.  More drastic city or state "takeovers" of failing schools and districts and legislative proposals such as "Outcome-Based Education," "Goals 2000," and other regulatory regimes have been and still are being tried, with the same disappointing results.

Another attempted strategy to improve public education is through resource-based reforms.  They include such measures as increased funding, new textbooks, wiring schools for Internet access, renovating or updating school facilities, reducing class sizes (fewer pupils per teacher), and other measures that require greater financial expenditures.

Scholars have studied the relationship between per-student spending and achievement test scores.  The finding of over 30 years of their research is clear: Pouring more money into the current system does not equal better education.  There are schools, states, and countries that spend a great deal of money per pupil with poor results, while others spend much less and get much better results.

The Kansas City (Mo.) school district provides the perfect illustration of this phenomenon.  In 1985, a federal judge directed the district to devise a "money-is-no-object" educational plan to improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation.  The result: Kansas City ended up spending annually more money per pupil, on a cost-of-living adjusted basis, than any of the 280 largest school districts in the United States.  The money bought 15 new schools, an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a robotics lab, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, and higher teacher salaries.  The student-to-teacher ratio was the lowest of any major school district in the nation at 13-to-1.  By the time the experiment ended in 1997, costs had mounted to nearly $2 billion.

Yet, test scores did not rise.  And there was even less student integration than before the spending spree, not more.  In May 2000, the Missouri Board of Education officially removed accreditation status from the district for failing to meet any of 11 performance standards. 
We have all but exhausted the "rules" and "resources" approaches to education reform, including district consolidation, with little to show for our time and money.  The one promising category left is "incentives."  Merit pay for teachers is one example of an incentive-style reform.  But the centerpiece of this strategy is parental choice.  The dramatic growth of charter schools and both intra-district and cross-district public schools-of-choice programs all represent recent introductions of incentive-based reforms.  These measures are beginning to replace the rigid assignment system with some important but rather limited choice opportunities. 

It's a fact of life that as human beings, we take a greater interest in those things over which we have some power of discretion than in those things we feel relatively helpless to affect.  That's why many people spend more time shopping for the car they want—visiting dealership showrooms and comparing prices and features—than they spend in picking the right schools for their children.  For a hundred years or more, governments have assigned our children to local public schools based where our homes are; and we pay for those schools whether or not we're able to choose an alternative.  That's a strong financial incentive to stay put.  The very nature of public, monopolistic bureaucracies is such that raising objections to what the government offers is frustrating, time-consuming, and often futile.  But when parents are able to say "no, thanks" with speed and ease, they can and will step up to the plate and behave like real consumers of education who are empowered to start shopping around.

A strong correlation has long been noted between parental involvement and the success of children in school.  The concept of choice takes full advantage of parents' valuable knowledge about their children and their respective talents, abilities, and learning styles.  This information equips parents to make optimal choices about where their children should attend school and what kind of school might best suit their children's needs and temperaments.

Some people say that in an educational system that allows for parental choice, the more thoughtful and involved parents may opt out of a particular school, leaving behind to languish in despair the children of less caring parents.  But this ignores the synergy that happens when choice and competition are at work.  I like to put it this way: It takes only a few patrons to leave the restaurant for the chef to get the message to improve the menu.  In other words, choice benefits everybody including those who choose not to fully employ it themselves.  That's the magic that has made American free markets the envy of the world. 

If Americans had done to the provision of food what they've allowed to happen with their schools, we'd have government farms producing food for sale in government grocery stores.  You'd be assigned to one and that's where you would have to buy your groceries.  You could patronize a different store, but for the crime of wanting something better for your family, you'd have to submit to the penalty of paying twice.  Your assigned government store would get your money whether you shopped there or not.  If you wanted to raise objections to what was offered on the shelves, you'd have to wait until the next election, mount an expensive campaign, and cross your fingers.  Or, you could line up at boring public meetings and have condescending government officials make you feel anti-social just for showing up.  If that had been the way we organized our provision of food 100 years ago, a presidential commission would have since declared the results akin to an act of war by a hostile foreign power.  An ever-expensive, seemingly intractable, national food crisis would fester.  And Cambodia would be sending us "Care" packages.

But Americans understood the potent power of choice and competition, left food to the marketplace, and became the best-fed people on the planet.

Michigan voters turned down a voucher plan last November that they viewed as flawed, though support for choice remains strong and is probably growing.  Until we find a politically acceptable way to implement comprehensive school choice—whether through vouchers or tax credits or some other mechanism—playing around with the number of districts will yield more frustration and disappointment than tangible results. 

The current number of districts is an obstacle to reform if we focus more than passing attention on it; it's a tool for reform if we take to heart the fact that the results of a vast reduction of districts suggest we must try different avenues of reform like choice.

"The current number of districts is an obstacle to reform if we focus more than passing attention on it; it's a tool for reform if we take to heart the fact that the results of a vast reduction of districts suggest we must try different avenues of reform like choice."