Today’s Tampa Tribune contains an article detailing some legislators’ plan to allow Florida’s larger school districts to split into smaller districts.
When I was going to college in South Carolina it always interested me that even relatively small counties in that state have three or sometimes five separate school districts within them. Then, when I moved to Texas, I found that some school districts covered two or three counties, or that any given county might have parts of several districts in them with no regard to county lines at all. Having grown up in Florida, where every county has one school district and one school board, this was pretty weird.
The article notes that “some studies suggest that smaller districts do a better job of educating students,” though it doesn’t describe any of the studies or even name them, so it might just be a lie. Google came to the rescue with a couple of studies, and there’s more (but not too much more) after the jump.
Now, I’m a small-government guy. I tend to think that no problem is so large that adding more government to it can’t make it worse. Thus, my first impression here is, Florida has only 67 school districts, thus only 67 school boards and 67 sets of bickering politicians, 67 separate district administrations sucking money away from classrooms to run their administrative duties, 67 separate boards to spend campaign money on, and so on. Compare this against South Carolina, which has less than a fifth of Florida’s population and only 43 counties, but has over 150 school districts—and thus 150 sets of bickering politicians etc. And note that South Carolina’s schools are not notably better (nor much worse) than Florida’s. I just don’t see how smaller school districts would change anything.
But Google found me several papers that purport to show exactly that: smaller districts would be better. Unfortunately, a lot of them are useless.
Here’s an article from the University of Minnesota that asks if "some districts are too small or large to offer a quality education," but then fails to answer that question. It does offer some background, though (but it makes use of one of my least favorite statistics, the "top 10% makes up X part of the total, while the bottom 10% makes up only Y part of the total." This is a statistic of the type "informative but valueless.").
Here we have a comment on people power in large v. small school districts that bases most of its argument on the fact that something "stands to reason." So this study is basically worthless.
So I've left the best three studies for last. This study argues, contrary to my logic above, that large school districts actually spend more on non-essentials than would more small school districts. It's worth looking at.
Here's a very good study that says very clearly that smaller school districts have a positive effect on graduation rate. Unfortunately, it seems there are a lot of variables they don't seem to have corrected for.
Finally, this study, called School Inflation, is probably the best. It also has some interesting conclusions. The study seems to indicate that larger districts might actually be better, as long as the larger districts have smaller schools. Probably the most nuanced study here.
Anyway, after I tracked down and skimmed all these studies (you think I actually read them all?) I sort of forgot where I was going with this post. I think my main point was going to be this:
I don't think smaller districts are going to solve any problem that couldn't be solved by not creating additional levels of bureaucracy, as I said above. And after looking through these studies, I'm not sure I've seen anything that clearly proves me wrong. But I think it's an interesting point nonetheless and I know I have some readers from South Carolina so I'm keen to hear what, if anything, they think about all this.