In the 2013 legislative session, state Representative Roland Gutierrez from San Antonio amended an education bill to require the Texas Education Agency to find out whether bigger Texas school districts would be better.
In a word, no.
Here in Dallas, most agree that 161,000 students in Dallas ISD is big enough -- no need to stretch the district to cover the entire county. Nonetheless, the state gave the TEA just over $75,000 for a definitive study measuring the potential benefits and pitfalls of consolidating city districts to encompass entire counties. The TEA's report was released this week, detailing how the consolidation of districts would be an absolute shit show. As they more politely worded it, mega-districts would drastically increase costs to the state while student performance would plummet.
Ironically, the report came on the same day that Representative Jason Villalba proposed to split Dallas ISD because, he argues, it's too big to meet every student's need. "The situation in Dallas vividly points out that there's a point where people start to wonder if the districts have gotten too big," says Debbie Ratcliffe, spokesperson for the TEA.
The study found that if the state consolidated districts to cover counties, the scale of the districts would be mammoth. If Dallas County were one district, it would be the fourth largest district in the country with about 430,000 kids. Houston would be the second largest in the country, with around 800,000 kids.
Districts that big would theoretically be manageable, if the state had one gargantuan district to control. But Travis County, Tarrant County and Bexar County would all also be among the top 20 largest districts in the country. "Large districts like we find in our urban centers are already experiencing the economies of scale," says Ratcliffe. "Where we find some cost savings are with smaller districts."
The TEA also reported that the number of kids per county district would be very unbalanced. "If you consolidated districts, Dallas County would have almost half a million students," says Ratcliffe. "And with all the school districts in Texas, about half of them would have fewer than 500,000 students in them. So that's a sign of how disproportionate a district the size of Dallas would be to all the other districts."
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Ratcliffe says that between a myriad of exacerbated costs, larger districts would not be saving any money at all. In Dallas County, the expected expenditure increase per student would be 4.9 percent. "Think of the transportation alone if you have one bus system that's going all over the county," she says.
Districts would also lose money by having to bring in additional teachers and administrators. "Districts in the Dallas area pay way above the state minimum," says Ratcliffe. "But if you combined all the districts, how likely is it that you would adopt the lowest salary? You'd adopt the highest salary. So it seems unlikely that you would have cost saving salaries."
Some advocates had pointed out that for larger districts, certain educational materials would be more affordable since they could be bought in bulk. "Districts the size of those in Dallas County are already big enough to get bulk discounts on their own. So the researchers found that the cost saving just wasn't there," says Ratcliffe. Student performance rates would also fall, even more than they already have. The report doesn't skirt the issue in this respect, and notes the correlation between funding shortages and student performance:
Given the lack of cost savings under the simulation, it is highly unlikely that performance would improve if there were consolidation in the designated counties. While there are many counties in Texas where all of the districts are sufficiently small to gain from consolidation, the existing districts in the specific counties under analysis already enjoy substantial economies of scale and would lose important incentives to behave efficiently were they to be consolidated. There is no reason to believe that this proposal would lead to improvements in student performance, and good reason to believe student performance would fall. The bottom line is that bigger is not always better in Texas.