Large school dis­tricts serve stu­dents best

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JANE WETTACH AND GRACE THOMAS

A new de­bate is aris­ing in the con­ver­sa­tion about im­prov­ing North Carolina’s pub­lic schools – should large school dis­tricts be bro­ken up into smaller ones? As we con­sider this ques­tion, we should keep two likely con­se­quences of such a move in mind: one, that with smaller dis­tricts, chil­dren of the same race likely will be con­cen­trated in those dis­tricts and, two, that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of re­sources will flow into the whiter and wealth­ier of those new dis­tricts.

Through­out the South, large county-based school dis­tricts have en­hanced eco­nomic eq­uity and racial in­te­gra­tion. Sev­eral decades after the Supreme Court de­clared racially seg­re­gated schools un­con­sti­tu­tional, it de­ter­mined that in­te­gra­tion ef­forts could not cross school district lines. Large ru­ral school dis­tricts in the South con­tained a suf­fi­cient racial mix of stu­dents to ef­fec­tively de­seg­re­gate, un­like smaller, more mono-racial dis­tricts in the North. The ur­ban dis­tricts in the South, which were of­ten split be­tween mostly-black city schools and mostly-white county schools, even­tu­ally con­sol­i­dated to coun­ter­act this de facto seg­re­ga­tion. In 1976, for ex­am­ple, Raleigh and Wake County merged, led by mem­bers of the busi­ness com­mu­nity who were con­cerned about neg­a­tive eco­nomic im­pacts from the racially split dis­tricts. In­te­gra­tion of schools through­out the county en­sued.

Since then, in­te­gra­tion of our large dis­tricts hasn’t held steady and much re-seg­re­ga­tion has oc­curred in­ter­nally. Be­cause the U.S. Supreme Court has sanc­ti­fied school district lines, small, racially ho­moge­nous dis­tricts can be im­mune from le­gal chal­lenges that they are un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally seg­re­gated.

It is typ­i­cally wealth­ier and whiter com­mu­ni­ties that seek to split off from larger dis­tricts. When school qual­ity im­proves in a newly-cre­ated district, it at­tracts more fam­i­lies with re­sources. In the re­main­ing por­tion of the for­mer district, taxes dwin­dle and school qual­ity suf­fers. Thus, the “white flight” pat­terns of the past con­tinue, racial and eco­nomic con­cen­tra­tion in­ten­si­fies, and re-seg­re­ga­tion is the re­sult.

The scourge of re-seg­re­ga­tion is not the only rea­son to op­pose the dis­man­tling of our large school dis­tricts. The economies of scale with larger dis­tricts are real, not only in con­struc­tion but in ad­min­is­tra­tion as well. A study in Illi­nois pro­jected a $130 mil­lion an­nual sav­ings were the num­ber of small school dis­tricts there re­duced by half. In North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the na­tion in per-pupil fund­ing and al­ready has an $8 bil­lion back­log of con­struc­tion and re­pair work needed at schools across the state, the po­ten­tial sav­ings from re­tain­ing our large school dis­tricts should not be min­i­mized.

Fur­ther, any ad­di­tional chal­lenges in man­ag­ing large dis­tricts should be weighed against the ad­van­tages. For ex­am­ple, spe­cial­ized schools for stu­dents in­ter­ested in the arts, engi­neer­ing, or lead­er­ship are pos­si­ble only in dis­tricts with suf­fi­cient stu­dents to fill those schools. The avail­abil­ity of en­rich­ment and ath­letic ac­tiv­i­ties for stu­dents in­creases with district size. And large dis­tricts have the op­er­a­tional scale to pro­vide suf­fi­cient trained per­son­nel and pro­grams to ac­com­mo­date and ed­u­cate stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and spe­cial needs.

On the long list of is­sues fac­ing North Carolina schools, the size of dis­tricts should be near the bot­tom. School district di­vi­sion is un­nec­es­sary and far from inevitable. What is inevitable is that carv­ing up school sys­tems will in­crease racial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity, not just for stu­dents, but also for com­mu­ni­ties across the state. That’s not the right di­rec­tion for North Carolina.

Jane Wettach is the Wil­liam B. McGuire Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Law at Duke Law School, where she teaches Ed­u­ca­tion Law. Grace Thomas is a third-year stu­dent at Duke Law School.

TRAVIS LONG [email protected]­sob­server.com

Split­ting up large dis­tricts could in­crease racial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity.

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