In case you missed it the other day online or today in the hard copy of Raleigh’s News & Observer, be sure to check out an outstanding essay by Duke University professor of law Jane Wettach and her student, Grace Thomas. In “Big is best for school districts,” Wettach and Thomas lay out several compelling and common sense reasons for retaining North Carolina’s commitment to large, countywide school districts and resisting efforts pushed by some on the right to break them up — most notably the imperative to resist efforts by wealthy, whiter communities to wall themselves off. This is from the essay:
Throughout the South, large county-based school districts have enhanced economic equity and racial integration. Several decades after the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, it determined that integration efforts could not cross school district lines. Large rural school districts in the South contained a sufficient racial mix of students to effectively desegregate, unlike smaller, more mono-racial districts in the North. The urban districts in the South, which were often split between mostly-black city schools and mostly-white county schools, eventually consolidated to counteract this de facto segregation. In 1976, for example, Raleigh and Wake County merged, led by members of the business community who were concerned about negative economic impacts from the racially split districts. Integration of schools throughout the county ensued.
Since then, integration of our large districts hasn’t held steady and much re-segregation has occurred internally. Nevertheless, large districts, with their greater mix of students, still have the most power to resist re-segregation. Once district boundaries are redrawn, that protection is gone. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctified school district lines, small, racially homogenous districts can be immune from legal challenges that they are unconstitutionally segregated.
The scourge of re-segregation is not the only reason to oppose the dismantling of our large school districts. The economies of scale with larger districts are real, not only in construction but in administration as well. Three or four superintendents cannot be hired for the cost of one. Indeed, a number of states with many small school districts are encouraging school district consolidation to save money and enhance efficiency. A study in Illinois projected a $130 million annual savings were the number of small school districts there reduced by half. In North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding and already has an $8 billion backlog of construction and repair work needed at schools across the state, the potential savings from retaining our large school districts should not be minimized.
The arguments supporting smaller districts are ephemeral at best. Taken as a whole, social science research does not show a causal relationship between smaller districts and higher academic performance….On the long list of issues facing North Carolina schools, the size of districts should be near the bottom.