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What Does Research Say About School District Consolidation?

A frequent question to the Reference Desk, and one currently receiving increased national attention due to budget challenges, is whether consolidating school districts might result in lower overall costs for education. Unfortunately, research on consolidation does not offer definitive guidance for making such decisions. There are several reasons for this: empirical studies of consolidation employ different analytical approaches to data; older data in some studies yield results that may not be representative of current district conditions; studies do not uniformly separate costs related to merging only a narrow range of district services from costs related to merging entire districts or combining schools; different studies focus on different costs or estimate costs in different ways; and much of the literature consists of advocacy. However, while the literature on consolidation may not provide a direct road map for making decisions, it does provide a useful overview of issues, together with estimates of cost savings and cautions for those going forward with consolidation. Here is a summary of the major findings from the literature:

  • There is no compelling a priori reason for believing that consolidation automatically leads to cost savings.
  • Empirical studies of consolidation yield overall estimates of cost savings that are relatively modest, with the largest percentage of savings accruing from consolidating very small districts.
  • Consolidation may increase costs in some areas for more than a decade.
  • A number of states encourage districts and regional agencies to enter into cooperative purchasing agreements; in these states substantial numbers of agencies have done so.
  • Planning for consolidation should consider not only expected benefits, but also unintended consequences—both positive and negative—among several commonly identified themes such as issues of local choice and control, transportation costs, and impact on the local community.

Here is some of the most recent and publicly available research. For additional research from peer-reviewed journals and for research on other topics, contact the Ask A REL Reference Desk.

Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What it Means
Howley, C., Johnson, J., & Petrie, J. (2011). University of Colorado, National Education Policy Center.
The National Education Policy Center research review is the most recent one found in our search. It discusses issues of presumed benefits of consolidation: fiscal efficiency and higher educational quality. The evidence detailed in this brief suggests that “a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies obtainable” and that poor regions benefit from smaller schools and districts. The brief recommends that consolidation occur on a case-by-case basis, and that state-level consolidation proposals are unlikely to lead to substantive fiscal or educational improvement.

An Exploration of District Consolidation [PDF]
Rooney, K., & Augenblick, J. (2009). Augenblick, Paliach, & Associates, Inc.

This paper presents a comprehensive and balanced review of the literature on school district consolidation as well as perspectives of those who have experience with the issue. The literature review makes clear the limitations of the existing research.

Feasibility of School District Services Consolidation: Evaluation Report [PDF]
Idaho Legislature, Office of Performance Evaluations. (2009).
This report of the Idaho Legislature examined the feasibility of consolidating district services and found that consolidating three types of services—purchasing of supplies, transportation, and staff development—could yield potential savings.

Merger/Consolidation of School Districts: Does It Save Money and Improve Student Achievement? [PDF] Pennsylvania School Boards Association. (2009).
This literature review discusses many of the issues surrounding consolidation, including the Pennsylvania school board’s role in mergers, forced consolidations by states, financial savings, student achievement, and sense of community. The paper’s conclusion clearly advocates for local district choice related to merger/consolidation.

A Phenomenological Study of Rural School Consolidation [PDF]
Nita, K., Holley, M., & Wrobel, S. (2010). Journal of Research in Rural Education, 25(2), 1–19.
This study investigates how school consolidation between 2003 and 2006 affected students and educators in four Arkansas high schools. Findings are from 23 interviews with students, teachers, and school administrators who moved to a new high school because of consolidation, as well as those who were already in the receiving schools.

School District Consolidation: The Benefits and Costs
Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2010). School Administrator, 67(5), 10–17.
This article discusses a study of 12 pairs of consolidated districts in New York State. The researchers isolated the impacts of consolidation by comparing the consolidated districts “both with their own costs before consolidation and with the cost of similar districts that did not consolidate.” The study found that annual operating expenses declined by 61.7 percent when two 300-student districts merged and by 49.6 percent when two 1,500-student districts merged. These cost savings were offset by transition costs and adjustment costs in capital spending, which may have been encouraged by state building aid.

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk is a service provided by a collaborative of the REL program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). This response was prepared under a contract with IES, Contract ED-06-CO-0016, by REL Northwest administered by Education Northwest. The content of the response does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government or REL Northwest.

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