Free the School Districts | American Institute of Enterprise
As school children return to class this fall, the hangover from pandemic school policies continues to rock public education. The stubborn refusal of major city school systems to stay open during COVID has sparked all sorts of backlash. Some parents realized that charter and parochial schools remained open and these students were not suffering learning loss. Others have discovered, to their dismay, the politically tinged programs put before their children. Many voted with their feet to leave public schools in big cities like New York, whose school system has lost nearly 100,000 students, an enrollment drop similar to other systems that have insisted on remaining closed for decades. long periods.
Still others, with less fanfare, found themselves the target of “deconsolidation” movements: efforts to break up big-city systems into smaller, independent, suburban-style neighborhoods where parents would exert more control and less teachers’ unions. A proposal to split the Milwaukee Public School District into eight smaller districts passed the Wisconsin Legislature this year (only to be vetoed by the state’s Democratic governor). But the most forceful attempt to downsize a large school district is under way in the Las Vegas metro.
There is an active effort to allow small towns in the Clark County School District, which at 305,000 students is the fifth largest in the nation, to incorporate their own smaller, independent districts. This would mean that Nevada districts that were once joined, such as the 18 in Clark County that existed before they were merged, would have the right to “deconsolidate.” Community Schools Initiative leader Dan Stewart, a member of the Henderson City Council, describes the Clark County School District as “unmanageable, non-functional.”
There are a number of reasons why small school districts are attractive. A smaller government is more closely accountable to voters. Parents’ interests will be less likely to be overwhelmed by the interests of the teachers’ unions that have played such a big role in shutting down big city school districts during the pandemic.
But the idea also suggests a question. Aren’t there good historical reasons why big city school systems are so big? They can certainly be more efficient, buying supplies in bulk, for example, or needing fewer admins.
A fair question. But it turns out that the fact that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and other cities have only one citywide school district is not at all the result of a meticulous examination. Instead, it was an unexamined side effect of a brief historical period in which once-independent towns close to major cities thought it was in their general interest to be annexed – often to have access to cheap drinking water and other services in large cities. Moreover, the best studies on the optimal size of a school district find it to be well below the 919,000 in New York or the 616,000 in the Los Angeles Unified School District. There are no savings once districts have more than 4,000 students.
The story tells a complex story about the creation of our oversized school districts, the consolidation of rural schools for good reasons, and the expansion of big city districts, due to factors that have nothing to do with the ‘education.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the number of school districts in the United States has declined sharply. Data from the Federal Ministry of Education indicate that the total has fallen from 117,108 in 1939 to 13,588 in 2010. Much of the consolidation reflects the long-term trend away from one-room rural schools and the merging of previously distant systems. These are exactly the kind of consolidations that economists Matthew Andrews, William Duncombe and John Yinger to have found make economic sense. Yet the superficially seductive idea that larger districts will reduce expenses (eg, superintendents) turns out not to hold.
Duncombe and Yinger study of 12 actual consolidations in New York State concluded that savings would be realized when a district of 300 students doubled in size (22.8% savings) but as districts grew larger , savings dwindled and disappeared. If that same 300-student district expanded to 1,500 students, the savings would only total 3.2% – and beyond that there would be little or no savings. Of the 100 largest school districts, New York, the largest of them all, spend the most per studentover $25,000.
But the history of New York schools shows that the goal of school district efficiency had nothing to do with the consolidation of the formerly independent districts of Brooklyn, western Queens and Staten Island that took place. when the governments of those boroughs merged with that of Manhattan, creating the City of Greater New York in 1898. Indeed, in a key note in the state legislature of Consolidation leader Andrew Haswell Green, there is no mention of the schools. Green focused almost entirely on the need for a single authority overseeing New York’s ports. “New York, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Jersey City, and all the communities around the port have a common interest in remaining open to the fullest communications with the interior, and this result and other common interests can best be achieved by united efforts and by forces led by a united municipality.
There was, of course, no obvious concern about the size of the newly created school districts attended by some 500,000 students in 1902, when the city’s population was only 3.4 million.
Motivations other than education have also driven the growth of other major cities, with the growth of their public school systems being a side effect. In Philadelphia, the Consolidation Act of 1854, which expanded the city to include formerly independent cities in Philadelphia County, was passed, as one account put it, because “proponents thought the measure would enable city officials to make in the face of epidemics of riots and diseases. who ravaged the city in the 1830s and 1840s, while giving them the power and dignity to contest metropolitan supremacy. Independent towns such as Kensington and Southwark had been hit by anti-Catholic riots. Moreover, local leaders aspired to overtake New York as the nation’s largest city. As the Greater Philadelphia Encyclopedia says: “Perhaps more importantly, however, supporters of consolidation believed that only a united Philadelphia would have the power and status to overtake New York in the struggle for metropolitan supremacy, a race in which the city had languished ever since. at least three decades.
Similar stories characterize the growth of the urban systems of Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Brighton, Massachusetts approved a merger with Boston in 1873 to get help clearing stockyards to pave the way for residential development. Hyde Park joined Boston in 1912 for access to water. In Chicago, the annexation of nearby towns in the 19th century was endorsed by voters wanting better sewage systems, as well as clean, reliable water. As the City of Chicago Encyclopedia says: “Suburban voters favored annexation when they were dissatisfied with the quantity, quality, or cost of public services, especially sanitation. The importance of a water system for effective fire protection played a role.
Water, unsurprisingly to anyone who has seen Chinese district, played a role in the annexation of formerly independent cities to Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles Times has writing of the city’s origins, “The current juggernaut is the heroic creation of civic will and water in the first two decades of this century. Hollywood, Wilmington-San Pedro, Watts, Venice – one by one the townships came into the fold, both drawn and compelled by the watery vistas of the Owens Valley. Later, the prospect of suburban real estate development and its tax revenue led to the annexation of the San Fernando Valley region. This is how the Los Angeles School District calls itself “unified.”
But even as consolidation increased, one part of the education landscape resisted: the growth of America’s suburbs. Once suburban towns were able to access their own water supply and became prosperous enough to support a wide range of municipal services, including public education, annexation came to a halt in most of the country. (An exception is Houston, which has the right to annex without the consent of cities it has swallowed.)
The growth of the Clark County School District in Las Vegas is as much of a historical accident as that of its older counterparts in the East. The Nevada Legislature decided in 1956 to consolidate some 200 small school districts, many of them in rural areas, into single districts for each county. In Clark County, these 18 districts have been combined. But that was a time when the population of the county was only 100,000; today it stands at 2.3 million.
Thus, the contemporary configuration took shape: large inner-city school systems often surrounded by a patchwork of much smaller suburban neighborhoods. As Dartmouth economist William Fischel noted, once the described wave of big-city annexations ended, most school consolidations took place in rural areas, shutting down what were once large numbers of schools. one-room schools. Suburbs surrounding major cities chose to remain independent.
That’s how parents in Clark County and elsewhere are striving to have the same kind of smaller, independent, and often more efficient districts they see in other parts of the country. These are the districts that compete on the basis of quality – and where there have been far fewer teacher strikes, even as teachers’ unions became active and powerful from the 1960s. see teacher strikes in New York but not Scarsdale, Chicago but not Winnetka, Oakland but not Marin County. And thousands of small districts have remained open during the pandemic, avoiding the endemic learning loss seen in gigantic districts. As the Washington Post reported, “In the nation’s largest school systems, such as those in New York, Los Angles, DC and Chicago, teachers’ unions and concerned parents have fought back against reopening plans. … Yet thousands of school districts — typically small in conservative-leaning areas” — have opted to stay open.
Our oversized big-city school districts, blighted by low student achievement and high costs, are an accident of history. It’s no wonder that some big-city parents are aware of the prospect of enjoying the same kind of influence and sense of community as their suburban counterparts. It’s a movement that doesn’t produce the kind of sparks that protests against critical race theory do, but it can be just as consequential.