Big is best for school districts

A new debate is arising in the conversation about improving North Carolina’s public schools – should large school districts be broken up into smaller ones? As we consider this question, we should keep two likely consequences of such a move in mind: one, that with smaller districts, children of the same race likely will be concentrated in those districts and, two, that a disproportionate share of resources will flow into the whiter and wealthier of those new districts.

Throughout the South, large county-based school districts have enhanced economic equity and racial integration. Several decades after the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, it determined that integration efforts could not cross school district lines. Large rural school districts in the South contained a sufficient racial mix of students to effectively desegregate, unlike smaller, more mono-racial districts in the North. The urban districts in the South, which were often split between mostly-black city schools and mostly-white county schools, eventually consolidated to counteract this de facto segregation. In 1976, for example, Raleigh and Wake County merged, led by members of the business community who were concerned about negative economic impacts from the racially split districts. Integration of schools throughout the county ensued.

Since then, integration of our large districts hasn’t held steady and much re-segregation has occurred internally. Nevertheless, large districts, with their greater mix of students, still have the most power to resist re-segregation. Once district boundaries are redrawn, that protection is gone. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctified school district lines, small, racially homogenous districts can be immune from legal challenges that they are unconstitutionally segregated.

It is typically wealthier and whiter communities that seek to split off from larger districts. When school quality improves in a newly-created district, it attracts more families with resources. In the remaining portion of the former district, taxes dwindle and school quality suffers. Thus, the “white flight” patterns of the past continue, racial and economic concentration intensifies, and re-segregation is the result.

The scourge of re-segregation is not the only reason to oppose the dismantling of our large school districts. The economies of scale with larger districts are real, not only in construction but in administration as well. Three or four superintendents cannot be hired for the cost of one. Indeed, a number of states with many small school districts are encouraging school district consolidation to save money and enhance efficiency. A study in Illinois projected a $130 million annual savings were the number of small school districts there reduced by half. In North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding and already has an $8 billion backlog of construction and repair work needed at schools across the state, the potential savings from retaining our large school districts should not be minimized.

The arguments supporting smaller districts are ephemeral at best. Taken as a whole, social science research does not show a causal relationship between smaller districts and higher academic performance. The fact that disadvantaged students in Massachusetts – a state with small school districts – perform better than similar students in North Carolina is much more likely due to the fact that Massachusetts invests nearly twice as much in education per pupil than does North Carolina.

Further, any additional challenges in managing large districts should be weighed against the advantages. For example, specialized schools for students interested in the arts, engineering, or leadership are possible only in districts with sufficient students to fill those schools. The availability of enrichment and athletic activities for students increases with district size. And large districts have the operational scale to provide sufficient trained personnel and programs to accommodate and educate students with disabilities and special needs.

On the long list of issues facing North Carolina schools, the size of districts should be near the bottom. School district division is unnecessary and far from inevitable. What is inevitable is that carving up school systems will increase racial and economic inequality, not just for students, but also for communities across the state. That’s not the right direction for North Carolina.

Jane Wettach is the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law at Duke Law School, where she teaches Education Law. Grace Thomas is a third-year student at Duke Law School.