State Politics

Would breaking larger school districts into smaller ones be better? 'We don't really know.'

Students listen to social studies teacher Ashley Austin during class at Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C., on April 8, 2016.
Students listen to social studies teacher Ashley Austin during class at Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C., on April 8, 2016. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

State legislators studying how to split up North Carolina school districts were warned that there's not enough evidence to prove that smaller school systems are better than larger ones.

A committee of state lawmakers is studying the potential issues involved with breaking up any of North Carolina's 115 school districts into smaller ones. A pair of researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill told the committee Wednesday that there's not much research on school district size, so there are concerns about using the "mixed bag" of data to make major decisions.

“There’s no optimal size," said Kevin Bastian, associate director of UNC-CH's Education Policy Initiative at Carolina. "There’s no one size fits all."

Bastian said the trend nationwide has been toward consolidating districts instead of breaking them up, going from 117,000 school districts in the 1940s to 87,000 in 2009. He said there's been very little research on the effects of deconsolidating districts.

There's research that points to positive academic outcomes from both smaller and larger school districts, according to Bastian. He cautioned that much of the research is from the 1980s and 1990s.

When it comes to financial efficiency of school district size, the research is scattered all across the map, according to Eric Houck, an associate professor of leadership and policy at UNC.

“There is no real consensus about the relationship between district size and cost," Houck said,

Smaller districts may seem to be more efficient in producing student test scores, but Houck said that might be due to them having smaller schools. Houck said that you might not see gains if you broke up districts but still had large schools.

Houck said some research suggests that districts become less efficient after they have more than 15,000 students. Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg are the state's two largest districts with, respectively, 160,000 and 147,000 students.

If Wake and CMS were split up, Bastian said they'd likely need to be divided into many districts to capture potential benefits. especially to get to the "sweet spot" of 10,000 to 15,000 students.

This month's presentations came after legislators heard last month that breaking up districts would likely lead to lawsuits and a variety of other challenges.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican and committee co-chairman, acknowledged that the existing research doesn't prove whether smaller districts or bigger districts are better. The committee is supposed to present a report to the legislature by May 1.

"I thought it was maybe a little more towards breakup but not enough for anybody to claim victory," Brawley said. "What we really know is we know enough to know that we don’t really know."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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