Does School District Size Matter?

By Robert Schmidt, Ph.D., Alan Schlottmann, Ph.D.
  • Sunday, January 1, 2006

Executive summary

Policymakers throughout the United States are examining whether students, parents, teachers and taxpayers receive any benefits from large unified school districts. Nevadans also, as revealed in a 2004 survey on Nevada public school performance, have begun to question the “bigger is better” approach to school district size.

What recent studies strongly suggest is that size does matter, and that students, teachers, parents and taxpayers are all better off where school districts are smaller in size. A surprisingly robust body of academic literature now concludes that negative impacts of large school districts outweigh the positive.

Large school districts arose in an era dominated by large-scale manufacturing techniques and their resulting efficiencies. It was easy to believe that economies of scale would exist in larger districts, making delivery of education more efficient there. The resulting consolidation of small school districts — perhaps the most dramatic changes in public education during the last century — began with 150,000 school districts. Today, in the United States, there are less than 15,000.

Moreover, 24 districts in the U.S. now enroll more than 100,000 students. If economies of scale actually were the result, we would find school-district spending on instruction increasing as a share of the total as district size increased. Empirical research finds, however, that not to be the case. In fact, as school district size increases, the percentage of budget spent on teachers, books, and materials actually tends to decline.

In 1954 Nevada's counties began serving the state as school districts, and this policy has never been reappraised. Today Clark County School District (CCSD) has become the nation’s fifth largest. Although invariably supporting smaller size metrics in every other area of education, CCSD administrators are reluctant to discuss the prominent role of district gigantism as a contributing factor in the district’s chronically poor showings on national quality-of-education indices. Typically, when discussing classes and schools, district educators argue that smaller is better. When confronted with the problematic size of the CCSD, however, they tend to reflexively shift to “economies of scale” arguments — notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence against these arguments in public sector education.

It is time for a reasoned discussion of the impact of size on Nevada’s school districts.

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