Larger Means less Efficient in School Districts

Published February 1, 2000

While public school officials support the notion that “smaller is better” when it is applied to class or school sizes, the concept meets a much cooler reception when applied to reducing the size of school districts, according to a new study from the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.

Author Mike Antonucci nevertheless makes a compelling case for breaking up large school districts, which generally devote a smaller portion of their resources to student instruction than do smaller districts.

Indeed, even though U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley recently voiced his criticism of “high schools the size of shopping malls,” smaller schools aren’t likely to be created unless large school districts are actually broken up. A 1990 Clemson University study concluded that “school district size is the most significant factor in determining school size, with consolidation/reorganization plans generally resulting in larger schools.”

Driven by the belief that economies of scale would make the delivery of education more efficient in larger districts, the consolidation of more than 130,000 small school districts was one of the most dramatic changes to the structure of public education during the last century. In 1928, there were 150,000 school districts in the United States. By 1937, there were 119,001. In 1970, the number had plummeted to 17,995, reaching 14,841 by 1996.

Today, there are 24 districts in the U.S. with enrollments that exceed 100,000 students.

If economies of scale were in effect–with fixed costs being spread over a larger operation–then one would expect that a school district’s spending on instruction would increase as a share of the total as the size of the district increased. But Antonucci finds just the opposite to be the case. He concludes that the American public school system suffers from “penalties of scale.” Instead of making up a larger percentage of the budget as school district size increases, the percentage spent on teachers, books, and teaching materials goes down.

“Paradoxically, the larger a school district gets, the more resources it devotes to secondary or even non-essential activities,” writes Antonucci in the November 17, 1999, report “Mission Creep: How Large School Districts Lose Sight of the Objective: Student Learning.”

For example, the average U.S. school district spends 61.7 percent of its budget on instruction–teachers, books, and teaching materials. But many of the nation’s largest school districts spend less on instruction than the U.S. average rather than more. Florida’s Broward County spends 55.7 percent of its education budget on instruction, Maryland’s Baltimore County spends 55.3 percent, and Florida’s Orange County spends barely half–just 52.2 percent–on student instruction.

When Antonucci examined the proportion of district employees devoted to teaching, the picture looked no better. For the average U.S. school district, only slightly more than half of the employees, 52 percent, are teachers. But in Philadelphia, only 48 percent are classroom teachers. In Detroit, there are three non-teaching employees for every two classroom teachers.

In stark contrast, Rhode Island–with an average school district enrollment of only 9,222 students–spends two-thirds of its education budget on instruction. Over 63 percent of its education employees are classroom teachers.

This diversion of resources in large districts away from the primary instructional mission is likely to shortchange minority students most, notes Antonucci, since enrollment in the nation’s largest school districts is dominated by ethnic and racial minorities. He recommends breaking up large districts if they prove incapable of using their resources more efficiently.

For more information …

Mike Antonucci’s November 17, 1999, report “Mission Creep: How Large School Districts Lose Sight of the Objective: Student Learning,” is Alexis de Tocqueville Institution Issue Brief No. 176. It is available on the Institute’s Web site at