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Committee On The Division of Local School Administrative Units Hears From UNC Researchers About LEA Size, Deconsolidation Efforts

On Wednesday, the Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units held its third meeting of the interim, where the members heard a presentation on the correlation between school district size and efficiency.

UNC-Chapel Hill researchers Dr. Eric Houck, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership Policy, and Dr. Kevin Bastian, Senior Research Associate and Associate Director of the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC), discussed the efficiency and cost-based analyses of LEA size, historical statistics and the limited research that exists on deconsolidation efforts in other states.

Dr. Houck explained the cost-based analysis. He stated there isn’t a large amount of produced data and literature on the correlation of LEA size and student success and much of the produced data is conflicting. For example, a 2002 review indicates that between 4,000 and 15,000 average daily membership (ADM) is optimal, while a 2018 study in Kansas noted a threshold of 10,000. Dr. Houck also described that there are several other factors involved when including the cost-effectiveness of recomposing LEA size, including transportation, race and class, and special education costs. Lastly, he stated that previous literature only looked at performance levels, rather than growth in performance, and utilized production-function and cost-function approaches, which are better suited for firms and bureaucratic models.

Next, committee members heard from Dr. Bastian, who focused primarily on the efficiency-based analysis of “recomposing” larger LEAs. He explained that there is a major lack of research literature on the correlation between LEA size and overall student efficiency but stated “Smaller LEAs are associated with what you might call ‘desired’ outcomes for kids.” He presented the committee with several different studies, each suggesting different outcomes. For example, some studies suggest that the impact of LEA size depends on the poverty of the district or community, while others suggest that larger districts report greater progress in implementing standards-based reform. Lastly, Dr. Bastian suggested that most of the data comes from the 1980s and 1990s and lacks student-level data due to almost always being aggregated to the school or LEA level.

The combined conclusion from the presenters is that there is no optimal size for school districts; there is no “one size fits all” formula. They stated that Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools would likely need to be divided into many LEAs to capture potential benefits, but they also acknowledged that there would be a price to pay and there would still be many large schools in those counties.

Following the presentation, committee members asked the presenters “where does this leave us?” The general agreement was that there is very little presentable evidence and researched literature on recomposing LEAs by district size, but that smaller districts tend to perform higher.

Co-Chair Rep. William Brawley (R-Mecklenburg) stated that in trying to determine if breaking districts into smaller ones is the right approach, “in the final analysis, there’s not enough for anyone to claim victory. We know enough to say that we don’t really know.” He also stated that the committee’s next meeting on April 4 will be delving into efficiency and effectiveness of specialty and innovative programs that are addressing specific needs of specific populations in school districts across the state. To view this week’s meeting materials, click here.

Jacqueline Wyatt for NCASA