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Research Raises Doubts About Benefits of Consolidation

Has the Time for Consolidation Come and Gone?

Research shows that state policies that broadly push mergers of schools and districts will not save money and will likely lower the quality of education – especially for the poor

Craig Howley (740) 593-9869
William Mathis, NEPC (802) 383-0058

BOULDER, CO (February 1, 2011) – Policies that promote school consolidation are likely to do more harm than good, conclude the authors of a new policy brief published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means, authored by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie of Ohio University, provides a comprehensive review and analysis of research literature on school consolidation.

The brief comes at a time when policymakers, driven in part by a desire to save money, are showing renewed interest in school consolidation. At least eight states have considered or enacted consolidation proposals in recent years despite strong evidence that school and district consolidation does not generally save money. Howley, Johnson and Petrie point out that since the mid-20th century school consolidation has advanced rapidly. In 1931 there were 117,500 U.S. school districts. By 1997 there were only 14,000 districts. Correspondingly, in 1869, 6.87 million students were enrolled in 100,000 public schools; by 1999, 47.9 million students were enrolled in just 65,000 public schools.

For decades, consolidation was championed by school reformers as a way to provide more comprehensive education and to provide other benefits, such as single-grade classes and greater professionalization among teachers and administrators alike. But since 1970, according to the brief’s authors, research findings have raised significant questions about the benefits of consolidation. They note that “contemporary research, as a body and almost to a study, has not recommended consolidation as either a way to save tax dollars or to improve the outcomes or quality of schooling.” “Research on the effects of contemporary consolidation suggests that new consolidation is likely to result in neither greater efficiency nor better instructional outcomes—especially when it results from state policy that implements large-scale forced consolidation,” the authors write. “The consolidation strategy seems to have reached the point at which markedly diminished returns should be anticipated.”

The brief identifies a number of reasons for concern about further school and district consolidation. Research findings show that larger school and district sizes are associated with reduced rates of student participation, more dangerous school environments, lower graduation rates, and larger achievement gaps along lines of poverty, race and gender. Impoverished students, moreover, are especially hard hit, the authors write. A strong body of research evidence makes it clear that less affluent communities “often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.” In short, “state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes.”

The authors offer a series of recommendations, including that some especially large schools and districts consider deconsolidation to improve outcomes and achieve efficiencies; that policymakers treat with skepticism claims of widespread benefits of consolidation in cost savings or learning, in light of a large body research showing otherwise; and that even deconsolidation be considered only on a case-by-case basis “with attention to the devilish details that sweeping state policies cannot provide.”

Find Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means, by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit This policy/legislative brief was made possible in part by the generous support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (