Home | What Does The Research Say About School Consolidation?

What Does The Research Say About School Consolidation?

Thank you for your request to Ask a REL. The information below represents rigorous research, reviews of existing research, meta-analyses, and/or policy/research briefs. The following references and resources have been selected based on date of publication (with a preference for research from the last ten years), source and funding, and accessibility. Abstracts and executive summaries are copied directly from the reports when possible to ensure accuracy.



Factors influencing consolidation

Boex, L., & Martinez-Vasquez, J. (1998). Structure of school districts in georgia: Economies of scale and determinants of consolidation.Atlanta, GA: GeorgiaStateUniversity.

Available from: http://ayspsprodweb.gsu.edu/drupal/sites/default/files/documents/frc/report16.pdf

School district consolidation involves other issues besides the cost-effective delivery of educational services. In fact, the school district consolidation decision involves a variety of complex political and fiscal factors. Besides the potential gains from economies of scale, other factors that could explain whether or not school districts consolidate include income and tax base differences across districts, racial factors, and the size of the school districts with which operations will be merged. All these elements should be considered in the analysis of school district consolidation in Georgia. Consequently, the major policy issues with regard to the structure of school districts in Georgia are, first, whether economies of scale are present in the provision of public education in the state of Georgia and, second, what determines why certain city school districts choose to consolidate with the surrounding county-wide school districts, while other municipal districts opt to remain independent.

Brasington, D. M. (1999). Joint provision of public goods: the consolidation of school districts. Journal of Public Economics, 73(3), 373–393.

Available for purchase: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047272799000183

A new methodological approach investigates the factors that cause and inhibit political jurisdictions from jointly providing public services. Previous statistical approaches study whether consolidation occurs but are incapable of exploring with whom it occurs. The Poirier bivariate probit analysis suggests population and property value factors matter more than socio-demographic factors in determining whether two neighboring entities will form a consolidated school district. Small and large districts merge with each other, while medium-sized communities tend not to merge. Contrary to prior studies, neither racial composition, income levels, nor hypothetical school quality has a statistically significant effect on the probability of merging.

Economies of scale

Fox, W. F. (1981). Reviewing economies of size in education. Journal of Education Finance, 6, 273–296.

Available for purchase: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40703282?uid=3739568&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103985196091

This article draws together the key dimensions of the more than thirty studies which have attempted to measure the importance of size economics for schools and school districts, with emphasis on their theoretical, methodological, and empirical basis.

Criteria for consolidation

California Department of Education. (2010, July). Legal criteria governing reorganization proposals. In California Department of Education District Organization Handbook. Sacramento, CA: Author.

Available from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/lr/do/documents/dochap6.doc.

This chapter discusses the requirements of Education Code Section 35753 in detail and how the State Board of Education would apply the conditions of Section 35753. Any school district reorganization proposal presented to the county committee and State Board of Education must meet those requirements. Both the State Board of Education and county committees on school district organization are required to evaluate a reorganization proposal and make determinations that the conditions are substantially met. The chapter will be of particular value to members of county committees to assist them in understanding the legal conditions governing reorganization proposals.

Duncombe, W., Miner, J., & Ruggiero, J. (1995). Potential cost savings from school district consolidation: A case study of New York. Economics of Education Review, 14(3), 265–284.

Available from: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/4835671_Potential_cost_savings_from_school_district_consolidation_A_case_study_of_New_York

This article presents the results of a detailed study of potential cost savings from consolidation of New York school districts. It extends past research on consolidation by developing a theoretical framework which distinguishes several dimensions of economics of scale and defines an empirical cost function for schooling. The results indicate potentially sizeable costs savings from consolidation of districts with fewer than 500 pupils. Using such districts as candidates for consolidation, the study examines in detail the implications of merging these districts with one of their neighbors and finds relatively few districts strong candidates for full consolidation in New York, although some may benefit from sharing of administrative and support functions. The estimated cost model also sheds light on potential diseconomies associated with large city school districts. While findings apply directly to New York, the method developed here has general relevance to state education policy by helping to target candidate school districts for consolidation, and, where consolidation is not feasible, adjusting state aid formulae to reflect more accurately the cost impacts of scale.

Optimal school district size

Andrews, M., Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2002). Revisiting economies of size in American education: Are we any closer to a consensus?. Economics of Education Review, 21(3), 245–262.

Available from: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/222685041_Revisiting_economies_of_size_in_American_education_are_we_any_closer_to_a_consensus

Consolidation remains a common policy recommendation of state governments looking to improve efficiency, especially in rural school districts. However, state policies encouraging consolidation have increasingly been challenged as fostering learning environments that hurt student performance. Does the empirical research on economies of size support for this policy? The objective of this paper is to define the factors affecting economies of size and update the literature since 1980. The best of the cost function studies suggest that sizeable potential cost savings in instructional and administrative costs may exist by moving from a very small district (500 or fewer pupils) to a district with ca 2000–4000 pupils. The findings from production function studies of schools are less consistent, but there is some evidence that moderately sized elementary schools (300–500 students) and high schools (600–900 students) may optimally balance economies of size with the potential negative effects of large schools. Since program evaluation research on school consolidation is limited, it is time for researchers on both sides of this debate to make good evaluation research on consolidation a high priority. In addition, the potential diseconomies of size in large central city school districts needs increased attention in academic research.

Bard, J., Gardener, C., & Wieland, R. (2006). Rural school consolidation: History, research summary, conclusions, and recommendations. Rural Educator, 27(2), 40–48.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ783851.pdf

The consolidation of rural schools in the United States has been a controversial topic for policy-makers, school administrators, and rural communities since the 1800s. At issue in the consolidation movement have been concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Throughout the history of schooling in America, school consolidation has been a way to solve rural issues in the eyes of policy makers and many education officials. Today, faced with declining enrollments and financial cutbacks, many rural schools and communities continue to deal with challenges associated with possible school reorganizations and consolidations. This paper, developed by the NREA Consolidation Task Force, provides a review of the literature on rural school consolidation, defines consolidation, addresses current research and issues related to consolidation with respect to school size, economies of scale, and student achievement, and concludes with proposed recommendations for the NREA Executive Board.

Sher, J., & Schaller, K. (1986). Heavy meddle: A critique of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s plan to mandate school district mergers throughout the state. Chapel Hill, NC: Rural Education and Development, Inc.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED270245.pdf

At the request of the North Carolina School Boards Association, a nationally recognized expert on school and school district consolidation evaluated the 1986 North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) plan for school district consolidation from the perspective of economic, educational, and social/political considerations, including the issues of fiscal and racial quality. Findings indicated (1) that the DPI failed to demonstrate that mergers will advocate any, compelling state interest; (2) there is no solid foundation for the belief that elimination of school districts will improve education, enhance cost-effectiveness, or promote greater equality; and,(3) except for extraordinary circumstances, district reorganization should remain a voluntary decision of local voters and school boards. The report makes the following major points/suggestions: (1) complex, far-reaching merger decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis; (2) since good schools/school districts come in all shapes and sizes, educational policies relying on rigid size/organization criteria are likely to have counterproductive effects; (3) since mandatory mergers will not advance any compelling state interest, “back door” consolidation approaches should be discontinued; (4) alternatives to consolidation can expand educational opportunities and enhance cost-effectiveness; and (5) issues like mergers usually are a diversion from the greater tasks of finding new ways to positively influence children’s lives and increase teacher effectiveness.

Zimmer, T., DeBoer, L., & Hirth, M. (2009). Examining economies of scale in school consolidation: Assessment of Indiana school districts. Journal of Education Finance, 35(2), 103–127.

Available for purchase: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ865052

This article examines the potential for reducing costs through school district consolidation by employing economies of scale. Utilizing Indiana school district data primarily from 2004 through 2006, we find evidence for scale economies with optimal enrollment being 1,942 students, with a per pupil estimated cost at $9,414. The 95% confidence interval of the optimal enrollment is 1,300 to 2,903 students. The study examines several hypotheses discussed in this line of literature. Transportation does not appear to hold significant scale economies potential, while salary data provides mixed results. Finally, attendance is shown to be negatively influenced by school district enrollment levels, with the impact of attendance on student performance being examined in a subsequent study.

School consolidation after district consolidation

Driscoll, L. (2008). M.A.S.S. Small and Rural School District Task Force report: The effectiveness, value, and importance of small school districts.Amherst, MA: Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents’ Small and Rural School District Task Force.

Available from: http://www.leg.wa.gov/JointCommittees/BEF/Documents/Mtg11-10_11-08/EffectivenessValueImportance.pdf

Report of the MASS Small and Rural School District Task Force to investigate the economic efficiency as well as student learning outcomes in small school districts.

Johnson, J. (2007). An investigation of school closures resulting from forced district reorganization in Arkansas. Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust.

Available from: http://www.ruraledu.org/user_uploads/file/docs/an_investigation_of_school.pdf

Some policymakers and other advocates of reorganizing Arkansas’ public education system have insisted that the minimum district size requirements included in Act 60 and the district closings authorized under the Omnibus Education Act are aimed at closing school districts only, for the sake of “administrative” efficiency. They argue that the forced reorganization of districts is not intended to close schools. This analysis of the ways that reorganization has played out over the past two years strongly suggests otherwise.

Pros of consolidation

Cost savings

Stiefel, L., Iatarola, P., Fruchter, N., & Berne, R. (1998). The effects of size of student body on school costs and performance in New York City high schools. New York, NY: Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED420464.pdf

Small size is often cited by reformers and parents as the key ingredient necessary to create an effective learning environment. In New York City, the new public secondary schools have consistently smaller numbers of students than most existing high schools. The literature is unambiguous that smaller schools show better outputs than schools of other sizes, but is less clear about the relationship of school size and costs. This report analyzes the relationship between size of student body and school costs and performance in New York City public high schools, using Board of Education school-level data (1995-96) on budgeted expenditures, student characteristics, and performance. Of 201 secondary schools and programs in the Board’s database, 133 were included in the analysis; excluded entries did not serve all grades 9-12, served very specialized populations, or lacked information on necessary variables. The schools were categorized as small (less than 600 students), smaller medium (600-1,200), larger medium (1,200-2,000), and large (over 2,000). Results indicate that the size of the student body was an important factor in relation to costs and outputs. Although small academic schools had somewhat higher costs per student., their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates produced among the lowest cost per graduate in the New York City system.

Expanded class offerings

Hall, R., & Arnold, R. (1993). School district reorganization in Illinois: Improving educational opportunities for students. Burlington, VT: National Rural Education Association.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED363490.pdf

This paper examines recent school district consolidation in Illinois. A literature review summarizes: (1) evidence that led the state of Illinois to offer financial incentives for school and school district consolidation; (2) research on strengths and weaknesses of large and small schools and large and small school districts; and (3) attitudes toward consolidation expressed by state departments of education in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan. In Illinois, state financial incentives are pushing small rural districts to reorganize. Extensive on-site interviews were conducted with administrators, board members, teachers, and patrons in nine school districts that have reorganized since 1983. Case studies of five of these districts are presented in detail. Preliminary results suggest that the advantages of reorganization/consolidation greatly outweigh the disadvantages. Reorganized districts have provided students with a broader curriculum; teachers with increased salaries, benefits, and opportunities to focus on fields of interest; and taxpayers with a more efficient school system. Some students have experienced a modest increase in travel time. Nevertheless, reorganization alone is not the solution to current school finance problems. When reorganized districts have spent their incentive funds, they will find themselves in the same financial difficulties as other Illinois districts. The state must provide the organization and fiscal capacity to support educational opportunities for every child in Illinois.

Cons of consolidation


Duncombe, W., & Yinger, J. (2005). Does school district consolidation cut costs? Syracuse, NY: Center for Policy Research, Syracuse University.

Available from: http://cpr.maxwell.syr.edu/efap/Publications/Does_School_Consolidation_Nov_05.pdf

Consolidation has dramatically reduced the number of school districts in the United States. Using data from rural school districts in New York, this paper provides the first direct estimation of consolidation’s cost impacts. We find economies of size in operating and capital spending: doubling enrollment cuts total costs per pupil by 28 percent for a 300-pupil district and by 9 percent for a 1,500-pupil district. Adjustment costs in capital spending lower these enrollment-based cost savings by about 5 percentage points. Overall, consolidation makes fiscal sense, particularly for very small districts, but states should avoid subsidizing unwarranted capital projects.


Gritter, A., Silvernail, D., & Sloan, J. (2007). Analysis of the impact of school consolidation on student transportation costs. Portland, ME: Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation, University of Southern Maine.

Available from: http://usm.maine.edu/sites/default/files/Center%20for%20Education%20Policy%2C%20Applied%20Research%2C%20and%20Evaluation/Student_Transportation_Cost_0.pdf

As districts consolidate schools through the construction of new schools or the transfer of students from one school to another a question arises concerning the net change in cost for that district. It is sometimes hypothesized that reductions in construction and operations costs from consolidation are generally offset by increases in transportation costs. This claim presupposes that, in fact, school consolidation generally results in an increase in transportation costs. But does it? On the one hand, some of the students may have to be transported farther to attend school, leading to an increase in costs. On the other hand, having a single destination may provide an opportunity for efficiencies in routing and bus usage. At the request of the Maine State Board of Education, the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation (CEPARE) at the University of Southern Maine conducted an analysis of transportation costs. More specifically this analysis addressed the following research question: Do student transportation expenditures tend to change following school consolidation, and if so, is it generally an increase or a decrease?

Zimmer, T., DeBoer, L., & Hirth, M. (2009). Examining economies of scale in school consolidation: Assessment of Indiana school districts. Journal of Education Finance, 35(2), 103–127.

Available from: http://www.nkd-group.com/ghdash/mba555/PDF/ScaleEconomiesSchoolConsolidation.pdf

This article examines the potential for reducing costs through school district consolidation by employing economies of scale. Utilizing Indiana school district data primarily from 2004 through 2006, we find evidence for scale economies with optimal enrollment being 1,942 students, with a per pupil estimated cost at $9,414. The 95% confidence interval of the optimal enrollment is 1,300 to 2, 903 students. The study examines several hypotheses discussed in this line of literature. Transportation does not appear to hold significant scale economies potential, while salary data provides mixed results. Finally, attendance is shown to be negatively influenced by school district enrollment levels, with the impact of attendance on student performance being examined in subsequent studies.

Academic performance

Berry, C. R., & West, M. R. (2010). Growing pains: The school consolidation movement and student outcomes. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 26(1), 1–29.

Available from: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG05-04%20Berry%20West.pdf

Between 1930 and 1970, average school size in the United States increased from 87 to 440 and average district size increased from 170 to 2,300 students, as over 120,000 schools and 100,000 districts were eliminated via consolidation. We exploit variation in the timing of consolidation across states to estimate the effects of changing school and district size on student outcomes using data from the Public-Use Micro-Sample of the 1980 U.S. census. Students educated in states with smaller schools obtained returns to education and completed more years of schooling. While larger districts were associated with modestly higher returns to education and increased educational attainment in most specifications, any gains from the consolidation of districts were far outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools. Reduced form estimates of the effects of consolidation on labor-market outcomes confirm that students from states with larger schools earned significantly lower wages later in life.

Bickel, R., & Howley, C. (2000). The influence of scale on student performance: A multi-level extension of the Matthew Principle. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(22).

Available from: http://usf.sobek.ufl.edu/content/SF/S0/02/45/11/00166/E11-00166.pdf

In this study, we investigate the joint influence of school and district size on school performance among schools with eighth grades (n=367) and schools with eleventh grades in Georgia (n=298). Schools are the unit of analysis in this study because schools are increasingly the unit on which states fix the responsibility to be accountable. The methodology further develops investigations along the line of evidence suggesting that the influence of size is contingent on socioeconomic status (SES). All previous studies have used a single-level regression model (i.e., schools or districts). This study confronts the issue of cross-level interaction of SES and size (i.e., schools and districts) with a single-equation-relative-effects model to interpret the joint influence of school and district size on school performance (i.e., the dependent variable is a school-level variable). It also tests the equity of school-level outcomes jointly by school and district size. Georgia was chosen for study because previous single-level analysis there had revealed no influence of district size on performance (measured at the district level). Findings from this study show substantial cross-level influences of school and district size at the 8th grade, and weaker influences at the 11th grade. The equity effects, however, are strong at both grade levels and show a distinctive pattern of size interactions. Results are interpreted to draw implications for a “structuralist” view of school and district restructuring, with particular concern for schooling to serve impoverished communities. The authors argue the importance of a notion of “scaling” in the system of schooling, advocating the particular need to create smaller districts as well as smaller schools as a route to both school excellence and equity of school outcomes.


Funk, P., & Bailey, J. (1999). Small schools, big results: Nebraska high school completion and postsecondary enrollment rates by size of school district. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Alliance for Rural Education.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED441633.pdf

Current school finance policy in Nebraska rests on the premise that higher costs due to small school size should not be subsidized by state funds unless there is no consolidation alternative. This report aims to reframe the school size debate by demonstrating the excellent performance of Nebraska’s small schools in high school completion and postsecondary enrollment rates and by offering an alternative measure of cost efficiency that includes student outcomes. Analysis of school data from 1991-92 through 1994-95 and postsecondary data, 1990-98, reveals the following: (1) high schools with less than 100 students had average graduation rates of 97percent, compared to 85 percent statewide; (2) high school completion rates were lowest for high schools whose size was considered most “efficient” (600-999 students); (3) Nebraska postsecondary institution enrollment rates were 73 percent in counties with average high school enrollments of less than 70 students and 70 percent in counties with average high school enrollments of 600-999 students; and (4) the percentage of students completing high school and enrolling in a Nebraska college was 25 percent higher for counties with the smallest schools, compared to counties with the largest schools. The so-called “inefficiencies” of small schools are greatly reduced when calculated on the basis of cost per graduate, and virtually disappear when the social costs of non-graduates and the positive societal impact of college-educated citizens are considered. Recommendations for the Nebraska school funding formula are offered.


Johnson, J. (2004). Small works in Nebraska: How poverty and the size of school systems affect school performance in Nebraska. Arlington, VA: The Rural School and Community Trust.

Available from: http://www.ruraledu.org/user_uploads/file/Small_Works_In_Nebras.pdf

New research shows that Nebraska’s smaller school systems reduce the harmful effects of poverty on student achievement.

Community impacts of consolidation

Blauwkamp, J. M., Longo, P. J., & Anderson, J. (2011). School consolidation in Nebraska: Economic efficiency vs. rural community life. Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy, 6(1), 1.

Available from: http://newprairiepress.org/ojrrp/vol6/iss1/1/

We examine the factors driving rural school consolidations, focusing our analysis on Nebraska. We consider statutory and case law, the school financing formulas that drive consolidation and the efforts by rural citizens to challenge those financing formulas in courts. We analyze how rural school consolidations have been framed in newspaper coverage, in order to see the dominant understandings of the cost-benefit tradeoffs in consolidating rural schools. Finally, we study three cases of rural Nebraska school districts for the insights these cases provide as to the challenges of sustaining rural community schools and the effects of consolidation on the students and the communities. Our conclusion is that schools play a vital role in sustaining rural community life, although the costs to the community when schools are consolidated are more difficult to quantify than the economies of scale that motivate those consolidations.

Lyson, T. (2002). What does a school mean to a community? Assessing the social and economic benefits of schools to rural villages in New York. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 17(3), 131–137.

Available from: http://jrre.vmhost.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/17-3_1.pdf

Using data from the 1990 U.S. Census and from the New York State Department of Education, I identify community level characteristics associated with the presence or absence of a school. My inquiry focuses on two sets of rural communities: those with populations of 500 or less and those with populations between 501 and 2,500. I find that the social and economic welfare in all rural communities is higher in places that have schools. Further, in the smallest villages, which have fewer resources and fewer civic places, schools are especially critical to the social and economic well-being of the community. For policy makers, educational administrators, and local citizens it is important to understand that schools are vital to rural communities. The money that might be saved through consolidation could be forfeited in lost taxes, declining property values, and lost businesses.

Schwartzbeck, T. (2003). Declining counties, declining enrollments. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Available from: http://aasa.org/uploadedFiles/Policy_and_Advocacy/files/DecliningCountiesandEnrollment.pdf

Many rural areas have seen a decline in the present and future school populations. The source of this decline is threefold: (1)a “graying,” or increase in percentage of the population of senior citizens, (2) the exodus of young families with children to the cities in search of better opportunities, and (3) a decline in births. Meanwhile, nationwide, public elementary and secondary enrollments are projected to rise. That increase is concentrated in mostly suburban and urban areas. Growing school districts face an assortment of challenges. Rural areas with declining enrollment face challenges, too, but different ones. They contend with: (1) threat of consolidation; (2) loss of per-pupil funding; (3) fewer instructional resources; (4) teacher and administrator quality issues; and (5) declining school facilities or difficulty securing funds for repair or construction.

Spence, B. (2000). Long school bus rides: Stealing the joy of childhood. Charleston, WV: Covenant House.

Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED441640.pdf

Every school day, hundreds of West Virginia children ride school buses much longer than state guidelines say they should. Under those guidelines, no elementary student should be on the bus more than 30 minutes one way, middle school students 45 minutes, and high school students 1 hour. In fall 1999, public hearings about school transportation times were held in four counties: Preston, Webster, Ritchie, and Lincoln. In three of these counties, most community schools have been closed or consolidated, and over half of the students ride buses in excess of state guidelines. During the past 10 years, over a fourth of West Virginia’s public schools have been closed in the name of efficiency, and the state of West Virginia operates the most expensive transportation system in the nation, based on cost per pupil and cost per mile. Testimony at the hearings suggests that the people paying the highest price for the state policy supporting fewer schools and longer bus rides are some of the state’s youngest citizens from its poorest families. Testimony from parents and students described wasted time, huge wasted portions of human lives spent on school buses; children too tired to perform well in school or to pursue higher-level work; children left out of extracurricular activities and accompanying benefits; and lost family time that affects family relationships. Testimony also addressed the health and safety of children during long, sometimes hazardous, bus rides and examined the myth that school consolidation would result in greater class offerings. Facts from a state-sponsored transportation study are listed.

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