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Do City School Districts Perform Better?

The cityhood movement is in full swing in DeKalb.  There’s plenty of news, discussion, controversy and conflict surrounding the topic.  I live in an already incorporated area.  I understand the motivation to form new cities.  But this post is not about the pros and cons of cityhood.  This post is about city school districts in Georgia.  Our last constitution, ratified in 1983 is Georgia’s 10th constitution and our nation’s youngest.  Article VIII of that constitution sets out the parameters for public education and its governance.  Section V, paragraph I of Article VIII, allows all existing school districts (county and city) to remain but prohibits any new independent (city) school systems from forming.  Georgia was left with 21 city districts, 159 county districts and no new districts allowed to form.

The motivation behind the prohibition on new districts was mostly economic in nature.  The result consolidated bureaucratic power and effectively eliminated competition in education for the next 30 years.  But was this prohibition a wise choice?  If we measure the implications in student achievement, the answer is no.

2013 CRCT Scores Analysis (Google Docs)

I have compiled and reviewed the 2013 CRCT scores.  As with my analysis of the 2011 CRCT scores, my first comparison was to review DeKalb’s status relative to the other metro districts.  Out of the eight metro districts (APS, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Decatur City, and Marietta City), DeKalb has the last or next to last achievement scores in 28 out of 30 categories.  The thirty categories are a matrix of six grades that are tested (3rd through 8th) in five subject areas (reading, English language arts, Math, science and social studies).  There has been growth in DeKalb’s scores but relative to the metro area, DeKalb remains in poor position.

As I noted above, cityhood movements are a current topic as are recent discussions and legislation to allow for the formation of new city/independent school districts.  Additionally, thanks to the wisdom of Georgia’s voters, some clusters of schools within districts are pursuing “Charter Cluster” status that empowers them with autonomy.  This would essentially allow the “cluster” of schools (consisting of a high school and its feeder schools) to act independently (pursuant to its charter) of a district in all areas except setting the millage rate.

With the recent interest in forming new school districts and independent charter clusters, I decided to examine the results of the 21 city school districts in Georgia and compare their results with the state averages, the averages of the 8 metro districts and DeKalb’s averages(1).  In every category, the city districts’ averages outperformed the state averages, the metro averages and DeKalb’s averages.  What was shocking was how much better the city districts performed relative to DeKalb.  The city districts’ averages outperformed DeKalb by a minimum of 5.2% to a maximum of 18.81%.  I note that among the city districts, 12 of the 21 have a higher percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students (those students receiving free or reduced lunch) than the state as a whole; 7 have percentages at or above the level of DeKalb.  Ten of the twenty-one city districts are majority-minority districts with as much as one-third of their students listed as having Limited English Proficiency (LEP).  The city districts reflect the diversity and challenges in educating Georgia’s children every bit as much as our larger metro districts.  I also noted that our black students seem to have better achievement numbers if they are in smaller districts.  I am researching this more and will post my results at a later date.  Some of the larger metro districts are going through demographic and political transformations.  Allowing independent districts to form could stave off the degradation of achievement across the economic and demographic spectrum and let all of our children flourish.

No longer are we in the era where we are simply trying to create economies of scale by consolidation in an effort to contain costs.  Georgia spends in the top ten on education in the nation but achievement metrics remain in the bottom ten; often the bottom three.  Georgia’s education struggles hurt our children and our economic viability.  One of the variables that hinders Georgia’s educational outcomes may be the prohibition on forming new independent districts.  The recent charter school amendment passed, in part, because many of our school district frameworks have outlived their usefulness.  Under our current framework, citizens of some large districts are alienated from the expensive system they maintain.  At every turn there’s an excuse, a bureaucrat and a policy that prevent districts from being nimble, responsive and innovative.  Consolidation and the prohibition on new districts have been quite lucrative for Georgia’s educational bureaucrats and consultants.  A 2013 study by Georgia College’s Ben Scafidi, Ph.D., showed how the growth in administrators has far outpaced the growth of students.  In Georgia, from 1992-2009, we saw a 41% increase in students but a 74% increase in administrators.

The better average performance of city districts relative to DeKalb, the metro area and the state as a whole, is important and striking.  If our state is to improve the educational lives of our children and have a robust economy, we must allow independent/city school districts to form.  To continue the arbitrary freeze on new districts is a disservice to our children, particularly our most vulnerable children, and impairs our economic viability.

(1)    In formulating the city averages I removed APS from the 21 districts due to (a) their large size relative to the majority of city schools districts, (b) their unusually large per pupil expenditures and (c) their recent history of testing irregularities.  This exclusion of APS generally only changes the µ less than one point.

(6) comments
  1. Fantastic research, Nancy! Thanks for putting this together & letting the results support your conclusions. I hope DeKalb will embrace the reality of their situation & look for more effective solutions. I can assure you the City of Brookhaven is VERY interested in helping solve this growing problem.

  2. Nancy, this is a thorough analysis with great potential for DeKalb to take a hard look at our abysmal scores . With a 74% growth in administration, it’s clear what matters to some adults, with no consideration of children. Thank you for this tremendous report.

  3. The best performing school districts through out the country are small one high school with their feeder school districts. I graduated from one of those school districts. We had two graduation tracks. A college bound track and a General Track. On the general track, the students went to a vo-tech school shared with the neighboring school district, jr. and senior year every after noon, to learn a trade. They had an equivalent of a 1 year trade school diploma; cosmetology, auto mechanic, chef, carpentry, etc.. when they graduated. Only two people dropped out of my high school class of 367, two girls who got pregnant in 9th grade. The rest graduated. My school district and the one next door are Newsweek top 1000 districts.

  4. thanks for good info Nancy and others who left comments. Is there a minimum size a school district should be to garner economies of scale? different topic: if DeKalb is allowed to break into smaller districts, how could we preserve student access to DSA and specialized charter or IB programs? I know North Springs Charter accepts out of district/county students for a fee.

  5. Hi Tina!
    You must be reading my mind. As it turns out, there is a size, or rather an interval of sizes, where districts are optimized in terms of financial efficiency and student outcomes. I’m going to write a blog about this as a follow-up. I think your question about how districts could organize to create choice options, even outside of their area, for the use of multiple districts is important. We can and must re-imagine education outside the constraint of our familiar boundaries..

  6. […] Nancy Jester, running for Georgia State Superintendent, points out in her blog, Do City School Districts Perform Better?: […]

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