James V. Shuls

By most academic measures, the Show-Me State usually performs near the middle of the pack, rarely cracking the top 25 in national rankings. But there is at least one area in which Missouri is a top-tier state: the number of school districts. With more than 500 districts, Missouri ranks 11th in the nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a lot of school districts, provided that you are able to support them all. Researchers such as James Conant have long argued that small school districts are more costly to operate. In addition, small districts often are unable to offer the same quality or diversity of educational opportunity as some larger districts. This is one reason why some are looking to school district consolidation as a possible way to improve outcomes and decrease costs.

One argument often made against district consolidation has to do with geography. Opponents contend that many districts with low enrollments are actually very large geographically, meaning that consolidating them would require students to travel great distances to get to school every day.

There are two easy responses to this objection. First, district consolidation does not necessarily mean consolidating schools themselves. Children’s travel times don’t have to change at all; districts could just consolidate their central offices and eliminate costly and redundant staff and services.

But more importantly, the premise of the argument simply isn’t true; Missouri’s small school districts aren’t nearly as big geographically as you might think.

The table below shows the mean square miles of Missouri school districts of various sizes. These data were obtained from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website. The average school district in Missouri covers an area of approximately 134.5 square miles. Large school districts (those with more than 1,000 students) cover more area (averaging 142.8 square miles). School districts with fewer than 350 students cover just 100.4 square miles. These districts receive additional funding form the state because of their low enrollment. Smaller still, school districts with fewer than 100 students cover just 63.9 square miles.

For perspective, an 8-mile by 8-mile square would be 64 square miles.

Student Enrollment

Number of School Districts

Mean Square Miles

100 or less

49

63.9

350 less

191

100.4

351–1000

158

166.9

1001 and up

169

142.8

All Districts

518

134.5

There may be perfectly valid arguments against school consolidation, but for districts with fewer than 100 students, size does not appear to be one of them.

 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.