Would Minnesota benefit from having fewer school districts? I don’t know, but based on the evidence I’ve read, I’m skeptical.
Here’s what I know after some research into the question:
Matthew Andrews, William Duncombe, and John Yinger (all of Syracuse University) say there may be some efficiencies to be gained from moving from consolidating very small districts–specifically, those with 500 or fewer students to those with 2,000 to 4,000 students.
Yet in a different paper, Duncombe and Yinger warn that excessive capital projects undertaken by consolidation can gobble up savings.
When Standard and Poors looked at the situation in Pennsylvania, it said that consolidating small districts makes financial sense, but “average per-pupil spending tends to go back up again as enrollments exceed 3,000 students.” In his study of Michigan districts, Andrew Coulson, called 2,900 students the optimal number.
When they reviewed Wisconsin districts, Andrew Reschovsky and Jennifer Imazeki, of the University of Pennsylvania put the optimal number at roughly 6,000 students.
It’s easy to support consolidation, since it makes administrators an easy target. Who loves administrators, after all? Yet the literature suggests that there is a U-shaped curve: Consolidation of small districts makes sense, but once districts get to a certain size, per-pupil expenses rise again. Coulson says that some Michigan districts should be broken apart, for example, and there was an effort (failed, I think) in Florida to break up the largest of districts there.
There may be several reasons why diseconomies of scale kick in, including the fact that large districts are prone to empire building. In addition, the most territory a district consumes within a metropolitan area, the less leverage families have over the district through moving to another district.
But a fundamental problem with any discussion of district size is that public schooling today is for the most part-down enterprise, driven not by consumer demand but by politics. This is similar to the economic calculation problem articulated by economists of the Austrian school.
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