JOHN HOOD COLUMN: We need more school boards

Published 3:49 pm Thursday, November 4, 2021

A year ago, would you have correctly guessed that meetings of local school boards would be among the most politically charged events of 2021, and that school-board races would be among the most contested of the next election cycle? If so, more power to you. I would have gotten those questions wrong.

John Hood

That’s not to say I mind it. The issues involved matter a lot: school curriculum, fiscal responsibility, COVID-era shutdowns and regulations. School boards have long deserved more public attention. In fact, I’ve become such a fan of local school-board meetings that I think we should increase their frequency — by creating more local school boards.

North Carolina’s school systems are abnormally large. We have just 115 districts. That’s far lower than in such similarly populated states as Georgia (180), Pennsylvania (500), Michigan (537), New Jersey (564) and Ohio (610).

Over time, most states have been reducing their school-district counts. The arguments for consolidation included lower administrative costs, savings from bulk purchases of goods and services, greater socioeconomic diversity and less confusion among parents and taxpayers.

Some of these benefits were, in fact, realized — but primarily by merging tiny districts with a few hundred students into modestly sized districts with a few thousand students. While there is some debate about the precise inflection point, I think a fair reading of the available evidence is that beyond that point, consolidating districts is counterproductive. It results in a diseconomy of scale, raising rather than lowering the cost of school operations. It also appears to harm student performance, everything else being equal.

When I say there is some debate about the inflection point, I mean that some researchers think it’s around 2,000 to 4,000 students. Others think it’s in the low tens of thousands. Alas, North Carolina’s largest systems exceed these thresholds. Wake County’s district enrolls nearly 160,000 students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has 140,000. Guilford (69,000), Forsyth (51,000) and Cumberland (49,000) are also quite big.

While I have long advocated dividing the gargantuan Wake and Mecklenburg systems into three or four districts, I’m open to the idea that the other urban systems should be subdivided, as well. My main argument has long been that giving parents more choices among district-run public schools would improve academic quality and the return on taxpayer investment.

Two recent studies show the promise of such a strategy. In a 2017 paper, Katie Sharron of Florida State University and Lawrence Kenny of the University of Florida exploited the fact that some states require there to be only one school district per county while others impose no such requirement. That allows for a robust test of whether school-district competition has educational benefits. “We find strong evidence that restricting competition among public school districts has an adverse impact on student learning,” they found.

A 2019 paper in the Journal of Education Finance used Pennsylvania as the focal state. Examining a range of financial and outcome data, the authors concluded that the cost-optimal enrollment for a district was 6,000 to 7,000 students. In Pennsylvania, there are many tiny districts far below that threshold. In North Carolina, our major problem is that we have some sprawling districts far above it.

Over the past few months, friction between parents and school boards has illustrated yet another argument for creating more districts: it may ensure a better alignment of values. Don’t like how your local district schools handled COVID, or what they may be teaching your children? Complain if you like, but that may not yield timely or satisfactory results.

Another reasonable response to the problem would be to put your children in another nearby district where the school board’s policies better fit your own. That would be a lot easier to accomplish if there were more such districts to choose from, at least within North Carolina’s largest metropolitan areas. More districts would mean, of course, more school boards and more elections to fill those school boards. I can live with that. What about you?

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author.