San Diego has 42 school districts. Is it too much? — Voice of San Diego

Artwork by Adriana Heldiz

The idea that California counties would be divided into several small school districts is as old as California itself. But this idea – as pennies that now cost more than they’re worth to mint – may have lost its usefulness.

San Diego County is divided into 42 school districts. The largest has nearly 100,000 students. The smallest, Spencer Valley, had just 32 last year, according to state Department of Education records. Several districts, including Spencer Valley, operate only one school.

The reasons why this might not be a good idea are both moral and fiscal.

Each district needs an administrative machine to make it work throughout the year. Each has its own elected Board of Education; its own superintendent; own attendance coordinator. Each district must keep many records to comply with state requirements.

Consolidating districts would reduce those overheads, but more importantly, it would spread the money more evenly. Indeed, small districts end up receiving significantly more funding per student than large districts.

Of San Diego’s 42 districts, 11 have fewer than a thousand students. These districts bring in an average of $23,192 per student. The average funding per student for the other 31 districts is almost half that: $13,246, according to figures compiled by WalletHub.

Considering the financial benefits, it’s not hard to see why small districts don’t consolidate. Like a 2014 Report of the Office of the Legislative Analyst In other words, “the state not only allows, but also encourages districts and schools to stay small by providing them with substantial funding benefits.”

The report recommended removing these incentives — and requiring districts with fewer than 100 students to consolidate. State lawmakers did not act on the recommendations.

Smaller school districts may be inefficient, but are they getting better academic results? No, according to the report. Small districts “perform slightly lower in school” than medium-sized districts, the report concludes.

There is another major reason for district consolidation that may not be immediately apparent: integration.

1948 San Diego school district map
In 1948, San Diego County had 68 school districts. It now has 42. / Map courtesy of San Diego County Office of Education.

A hundred years ago, when school districts were created, the people who drew the lines often carved out communities they considered undesirable. The limits of the neighborhoods that remain to us today, that is to say tend to reinforce segregation.

The consolidation of neighborhoods was one of the major strategies to achieve the integration of the South. Small districts were frequently combined into one large county district, as they were in Wake County, North Carolina.

Wake County has implemented a diversity policy that has worked over the years to achieve racial and income balance within its schools. In other words, the district would try to avoid having very poor schools or packing one racial group into a given school. Such integration has been shown to improve educational outcomes – and in the early 2000s, after years of working to balance the demographics of its schools, Wake County was nationally recognized for academic achievement.

Because de jure end of segregation in the South, de facto segregation in the West and North East was allowed to flourish. Latinos in the western United States are more isolated than anywhere else in the country, according to a report. And this segregation has been steadily increasing since 1965.

Schools in San Diego are also segregated for black students, according to a government report. The report showed that San Diego schools ranked near the middle in terms of all major US metropolitan areas for segregation among black students.

Reducing the number of districts in San Diego and the rest of California could make schools more efficient, improve student performance, and increase interactions among unlike kids. But consolidation efforts in San Diego have been limited in recent decades.

Valley Center-Pauma Unified became a unified school district in 2000. Escondido Union Elementary and Escondido Union High School Districts considered consolidating in the early 2000s. but i decided not to. And despite a push by some in 2014a large South Bay consolidation never happened either.

The state, however, has successfully pushed districts to consolidate in the past. Between 1935 and 1970, the number of districts grew from about 3,000 to about 1,000, according to the Office of the Legislative Analyst. The state encouraged these groupings with the carrot and stick of funding. But the incentives ceased, and since 1970 the number of districts statewide has remained about the same.

The last time Californians seriously considered consolidation as a statewide policy was during the Great Recession – when saving money became a top policy priority. But the biggest benefits of consolidation aren’t about efficiency; they have the power to make school systems better and more accountable.

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