Big Bad School Districts

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

Is bigger always better? When it comes to school districts, the answer is an emphatic “no.” In fact, research touting the benefits of smaller districts continues to mount. As more and more systems around the country race past the 100,000-student mark, unabated growth is exacting its toll: graduation rates are falling, school discipline is weakening, and academic performance is declining. Years of school district mergers across the nation have led to the birth of “mega-systems” − districts so large that students are swallowed up in an anonymous sea of faces, with only an ID number to call their own.

In addition to creating extra layers of bureaucracy, larger systems disenfranchise parents and students by weakening local control over schools. An accumulating pile of data indicates that these enormous districts actually cost more than they save, both financially and academically. Far from being models of efficiency, these bureaucratic giants guzzle resources and depersonalize education. Even though bigger districts have bigger budgets, their dollars don’t always make it to classrooms: Mike Antonucci, in an Alexis de Tocqueville Institution study, found that as district size increases, the percentage spent on teachers, books, and teaching materials actually goes down.

Word is getting out, meaning more political jousting for legislators. In our own state, the tug-of-war has already begun. Earlier this year, citizens in Charlotte Mecklenburg County began discussing deconsolidation of the state’s largest school system (CMS is home to more than 121,000 students). In late March, legislators proposed a bill to set up a referendum on deconsolidation of the CMS district. Voters in Charlotte/Mecklenburg already understand that there’s a problem: a May poll taken by the Charlotte Observer revealed that 47 percent of residents favor splitting up the district, while 39 percent oppose it. However, popular opinion failed to sway General Assembly members; the bill was ultimately killed, and some supporters were not even permitted to speak at an education committee meeting discussing the bill.

But while the deconsolidation movement proceeds in fits and starts in our own state, it is rapidly gaining steam across the country. Recently, the Nevada legislature approved $250,000 to fund a study of how to break up the Clark County School district. As the nation’s fifth-largest school district, Clark County’s system is home to over 290,000 students. While no one knows what the study will reveal, or how many potential new districts will be formed, this legislation is an important first step toward reversing the trend to “super-size” our school systems.

To our south, Florida legislators are grappling with how to handle oversized school districts. This month, resolutions were introduced in both houses of the Florida legislature to allow deconsolidation. These joint resolutions propose a constitutional amendment on the ballot next fall to allow counties with more than 45,000 students to split districts. Districts would not be mandated to deconsolidate, but would have the option to do so if voters in the county approved. Such a measure is way overdue: Florida has several mammoth school districts, including Miami-Dade County with more than 360,000 students.

Clearly, the debate over deconsolidation is far from over, in our own state and elsewhere. But as large urban districts continue to struggle with a lack of discipline and anemic student performance, voters will increasingly demand smaller districts. Such a move will enhance local control over education and empower families − a boon to schools everywhere.

Lindalyn Kakadelis is the director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.