by Katie Roy
School district consolidation. Mention this concept to Connecticut residents and you’re sure to get a variety of opinions, passionate arguments and disagreements, and questions and concerns about what it would mean for their local public schools.
This reaction has been evident over the past few months since the introduction of several pieces of legislation concerning the regionalization and/or consolidation of school districts.
Whether it has been letters to the editor in local papers, rallies, or hundreds testifying in opposition to three school district regionalization/consolidation bills during a March 1 hearing of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee, the reaction to the possibility of school district consolidation in Connecticut has been swift, loud, and filled with genuine concerns and questions.
However, one important thing has, unfortunately, been largely absent from this reaction and the conversation about school district consolidation: a fair and honest look at the research.
For Connecticut to have a constructive dialogue about how best to provide a high-quality, first-class education to all of the state’s public school students, and do so in a fiscally responsible and efficient manner, the conversation must include a comprehensive look at the research and an honest examination of its findings.
It is this belief that drove the Connecticut School Finance Project to complete a nonpartisan, independent, and comprehensive review of academic research regarding the costs and benefits of school district consolidation. This literature review examined academic works published from 2007 to 2018 that related to school district consolidation and student outcomes, as well as research focused on district consolidation and economic efficiency. In total, 40 academic articles related to school district size, consolidation, and other types of school district regionalization were included in the literature review.
Overall, the literature review revealed several key findings regarding the academic and financial impacts of school district consolidation.
The literature review found that while there is no conclusive evidence that school district consolidation positively or negatively impacts students’ academic performance, arguments can be made that access to educational opportunities such as Advanced Placement courses, elective courses, and athletics is improved by consolidating very small school districts. Additionally, in studies where student performance was shown to be negatively correlated with school district size, other variables, such as student income and student-teacher ratios, were shown to have much stronger effects on student achievement than the size of school districts.
In the case of Connecticut-specific research, a 2010 study comparing — within District Reference Groups — the academic performance of Connecticut students in regional high schools to those in local community high schools, found students in regional high schools outperformed their community high school counterparts when looking at SAT I outcomes.
When it comes to the impact of school district consolidation on financial efficiency, while there is a lack of agreement in academia on the methodologies for determining the most efficient school district size, there is substantial evidence — across research methodologies — that cost efficiency is expected to increase when smaller school districts consolidate, and that economies of scale are likely to occur when smaller districts combine to form a single, larger school district.
For example, for Connecticut’s peer states, research shows the optimal school district size for these efficiencies to occur is approximately 1,500-3,000 students. As a comparison, there are currently 84 local and regional school districts in Connecticut serving fewer than 2,000 students.
More information about the academic research on school district consolidation, along with specific research examples from Connecticut and its peer states, is available at www.ctschoolfinance.org/assets/uploads/files/School-District-Consolidation.pdf.
Education is an extremely personal and emotional subject, and we see this firsthand, every day when our organization works in communities across the state speaking with parents, teachers, and community members about school finance and the needs of their schools and town. Recognizing and understanding the emotion that the subject of district consolidation evokes is important, but just as important, and more critical, is having a dialogue about district consolidation based on research, factual information, and an understanding of the costs and benefits.
While the academic research on school district consolidation does not provide a simple, easy-to-follow guide or answer book for state policymakers as they discuss possible consolidation or regionalization, it does provide a helpful starting place for Connecticut, and a necessary look into the effects of consolidation on student performance and fiscal efficiency.
Katie Roy is the executive director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization based in New Haven that works to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school and state funding challenges that are fair to students, taxpayers, and communities.