A District of a Certain Size

An Exploration of the Debate on School District Size
Florence R. Webb
California School Boards Association

Like a lady "of a certain age," school districts of a certain size have sometimes been considered to be, well, not the most desirable. The "wrong" size, for the last half century at least, has been size small. How small? That depended on the researcher: some felt that a thousand was big enough; some preferred ten thousand; and some never quite specified. But for a long time in America, the only good school districts were said to be large school districts. As with most educational issues, the pendulum is swinging back on the subject of district size. During the period from World War II to the middle or late sixties, it would have been difficult to find an administrator willing to suggest that small school districts had any place in the future of public education. The training provided to educators on the subject of district size appears to have been far more unequivocal than the research on the subject. This is demonstrated in Joseph Millard's (1979) compilation of district size research, which shows that actual research and opinion surveys of educators produce somewhat different conclusions regarding desirable scale for school districts.

During the seventies and eighties, however, some practitioners and re­searchers have taken a second look at district size. Unimpressed with the track records of monolithic governmental bureaucracies in improving ser­vices or cutting costs, and concerned about the increasing distance between citizens and the governors of their schools, many current researchers are cautious about the benefits of largeness in school district organization.

In a number of major school reform reports released within the past few years, school districts are all but ignored as reformers focus on the school site as the "appropriate" seat of decision making, planning, and professional growth.

This article is an exploration of the research and the debate on what constitutes the "right" size for school districts. It discusses current condi­tions of school districts in terms of size, and the research base which contributed to the trend towards bigness. Three major issues have been identified which guide much of the district size research: fiscal efficiency, school effectiveness, and community identity. Past and recent research will be examined and compared within the framework of these three issues.

And finally, some of the many still unanswered questions will be identi­fied, in the hope of kindling interest in further research in the field. For in spite of the massive amount of examination of school district size that has taken place, there still does not seem to be a definitive "right answer" to the issues under discussion.

This article was originally published in Education and Urban Society by SAGE Publications.

Suggested citationWebb, F. R. (1989, February). A district of a certain size: An exploration of the debate on school district size [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.