Is Bigger that Much Better? School District Size, High School Completion, and Post-Secondary Enrollment Rates in Maine

Read the full report | If recent news stories from across Maine are any indication, opposition to the state-mandated school district consolidation effort is growing. Communities are finding that instead of saving money, consolidation may result in massive cost increases. Questions regarding the ownership of school property and the effects of consolidation on school choice concern many others.

What few appear to be discussing though, and what seems never to have been discussed throughout the entire torturous path of the new “reorganization” law, is the effect that larger school districts will have on students. The focus has more or less always been, and continues to be, on money.

This lack of focus on student outcomes is happening despite the fact that countless studies have confirmed that large school districts are rarely better and often worse for students than smaller ones. Researcher Herbert Wahlberg concluded in 1986, more than 20 years ago, that smaller school districts outperformed larger ones, even allowing for the socio-economic status of the students. A 1992 survey of research on school district size by Craig Howley led him to conclude that “decades of research findings” confirm the positive effects of “small scale schooling” on “attitudes and satisfaction, extracurricular participation, attachment to school, and attendance.”

The advantages of small school districts for low-income students in particular have been widely confirmed by research. A 2000 study of over 13,000 schools in 2,300 districts confirmed “that when differences in socio-economic status are considered, small school districts have a positive effect on the academic achievement of children from poor families.” That finding was confirmed in a 2002 study by the Washington State School Board.

Despite this research, many states have plunged ahead with consolidation efforts in a misguided effort to cut costs. In an attempt to pressure small districts into consolidation in the late 1990’s, for instance, Nebraska adopted a school finance law, LB 806, which resulted in a “major shift in aid away from small schools.”

Opponents of the new law undertook a series of studies designed to defend those schools, including a 1999 report that looked at two areas where Nebraska’s smallest districts excelled, high school completion and postsecondary enrollment. This study found that not only did “high school completion and postsecondary enrollment rates increased as school size decreases,” but that “any higher school finance costs associated with small schools virtually disappear when the substantial cost of nongraduates and the positive societal impact of college-educated citizens are considered.”

Could the same be true of Maine?

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