Small Districts in Maine Outperform Larger Ones

Published December 1, 2007

A report released by The Maine Heritage Policy Center on October 23 finds bigger school systems may be cheaper to run but the state’s smallest school districts outperform them.

The report, “Is Bigger that Much Better? School District Size, High School Completion, and Post-Secondary Enrollment Rates in Maine,” by Stephen Bowen, examined Maine’s 15 largest and 15 smallest school districts that provide high school education.

“School reform should focus on getting the best possible outcomes at a value to taxpayers,” Bowen said in an October 23 news release. “Unfortunately, Maine policymakers seem more focused on district size than on working to make successful learning models more affordable.”

More Income, More Outgo

Maine’s 15 largest school districts range in size from 2,800 students in the Biddeford area to more than 7,000 students in the Portland system. All together, the 15 biggest districts enroll more than 55,000 students–more than a quarter of all the students enrolled in schools statewide.

On average, the biggest districts spend $8,033 per pupil. They are located primarily in the southern part of the state and enjoy a median income that is $8,000 more per household than in the smallest districts.

By comparison, the 15 smallest districts supporting high schools enroll little more than 3,000 students combined–fewer than the individual enrollments of 12 of the 15 largest districts–and are scattered across eight counties. On average, these districts spend $11,027 per student.

Academic Success

The smallest districts spend more for a variety of reasons not likely affecting student performance, including such fixed costs as buildings, maintenance, and bus service. But on measures of high school completion and post-secondary enrollment, smaller districts outperform the state’s biggest districts.

The 15 smallest districts graduated an average of 91.4 percent of their students in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available–six percentage points more than the 15 largest districts. Small districts also report 77 percent of their students enroll in post-secondary programs, compared to less than 72 percent from the largest districts, despite the fact that larger districts are wealthier.

“Maine’s small districts … are clearly doing something right, despite their small size,” Bowen noted in the release. “Perhaps policymakers should be looking to emulate these school districts, rather than do away with them through forced consolidation.”

Jason Fortin ([email protected]) is director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a think tank in Portland, Maine.

For more information …

“Is Bigger That Much Better? School District Size, High School Completion, and Post-Secondary Enrollment Rates in Maine,” by Stephen Bowen, The Maine Heritage Policy Center, October 23, 2007, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #22263.