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The idea that California counties would be divided up into many small school districts is as old as California itself. But that idea – like pennies that now cost more than they are worth to mint – may have outlived its usefulness.
San Diego County is divided into 42 school districts. The largest has nearly 100,000 students. The smallest, Spencer Valley, had just 32 last year, according to state Department of Education records. Several districts, including Spencer Valley, manage only one school.
The reasons this might not be a good idea are both moral and fiscal.
Each district requires an administrative machine to get it through the year. Each has its own elected board of education; its own superintendent; its own attendance coordinator. Each district has to maintain copious paperwork to comply with state requirements.
Consolidating districts would cut down on this overhead – but more importantly it would spread money around more evenly. That’s because small districts end up getting much more per pupil funding than larger districts.
Out of San Diego’s 42 districts, 11 have fewer than one thousand students. Those districts bring in, on average, $23,192 per student. Average per pupil funding for the other 31 districts is almost half as much: $13,246, according to figures compiled by WalletHub.
Given the financial benefits, it’s not hard to see why small districts don’t consolidate. As a 2014 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office put it, “the state not only allows but also encourages both districts and schools to remain small by providing them substantial funding advantages.”
The report recommended getting rid of these incentives – and forcing districts with less than 100 students to consolidate. State legislators haven’t acted on the recommendations.
The smallest school districts may be inefficient, but do they perform better academically? No, according to the report. Small districts “have slightly lower student achievement” compared to middle-sized districts, the report concluded.
There’s another major reason for consolidating districts that might not be immediately apparent: integration.
A hundred years ago, when school districts were being created, the people drawing the lines frequently carved out communities they considered undesirable. The district boundaries we are left with today, in other words, tend to reinforce segregation.
Consolidating districts was one of the major strategies for achieving integration in the South. Small districts were frequently combined into one large county district, as they were in Wake County, North Carolina.
Wake County implemented a diversity policy that strove through the years to achieve racial and income balance within its schools. In other words, the district would try to avoid having any high-poverty schools or packing any one racial group into a given school. Such integration has been shown to improve academic outcomes – and in the early 2000’s, after years of working to balance the demographics of its schools, Wake County was recognized nationally for its academic achievement.
Since de jure segregation in the South ended, de facto segregation in the West and Northeast has been allowed to flourish. Latinos in the western United States are more segregated than anywhere else in the country, according to one report. And that segregation has been increasing steadily since 1965.
San Diego schools are also segregated for Black students, according to a report by Governing. The report showed that San Diego schools ranked near the middle in terms of all major US metropolitan areas for segregation among Black students.
Reducing the number of districts in San Diego, and the rest of California, could make schools more efficient, improve student performance and increase interactions among children who don’t look the same. But efforts to consolidate in San Diego have been limited in the past few decades.
Valley Center-Pauma Unified became a unified school district in 2000. Escondido Union Elementary and Escondido Union High School Districts considered consolidating in the early 2000’s but decided against it. And despite a push by some in 2014, a large South Bay consolidation never happened either.
The state, however, has successfully pushed districts to consolidate in the past. Between 1935 and 1970, the number of districts shrunk from roughly 3,000 to roughly 1,000, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The state encouraged these consolidations with carrots and sticks related to funding. But the incentives stopped and since 1970, the number of districts statewide has remained roughly the same.
The last time Californians seriously considered consolidation as a statewide policy was during the Great Recession – when saving money became a top political priority. But the greatest benefits of consolidation aren’t related to efficiency; they have the power to make school systems better and more accountable.