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March 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 8

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How Large Should School Districts Be?


by Deborah D. Thornton



Just how large should Iowa school districts be? Are larger, smaller, or mid-sized districts better?


In a recent internet discussion, I proposed an idea for making the very large Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) smaller geographically – which would help resolve their current busing cost and school overcrowding problems and in my opinion help with their student management and achievement problems. My idea was called “radical” and not in a good way. The most recent Annual Condition of Education Report issued by the Iowa Department of Education seems to support the premise. Based on ACT and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, the Iowa districts with between 2,500 and 7,499 total students seem to do a better job of educating them than districts with over 7,500 students.[1]


ICCSD is one of eight “urban” districts in Iowa and has over 13,000 students. It is one of the few districts which is growing in size, in contrast to the majority of Iowa districts, which are mostly under 1,000. As a result of this growth, the district has decided to build several new elementary schools and a new state-of-the-art $50 million high school. In order to do this they accelerated $100 million of the school sales tax spending (SAVE – Secure and Advanced Vision for Education), committing to spending 17 years of tax money in less than 5 years through the use of loans.[2]


At the same time, there are several very small, less than 2,000 student districts surrounding ICCSD, specifically Clear Creek Amana, Lone Tree, Solon, and West Branch. This is also true of the other urban districts; Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City, and Waterloo. All have significantly smaller districts around their outlying border, though the greater Des Moines area has already established larger suburban districts. Often these very small districts have a difficult time offering their students advanced classes and achievement opportunities. Some of this is being addressed by partnerships with community colleges and neighboring schools. Additionally, many of these districts are experiencing significant financial stressors caused by declining enrollments. Nevertheless, the students in these districts are generally scoring better than those from the urban districts.


The table below shows the ACT test scores for 2012-2014. In all three years the students from the 24 mid-sized districts score higher than those from either the larger or smaller districts.[3] Not significantly higher, but higher.


Iowa School District ACT Scores


When you consider the NAEP scores, you see a similar – though admittedly not uniform – pattern of higher scores in smaller districts. Correlation does not make causation, and there are many factors in student achievement, such as income levels, parental education, speaking English, and more. However, according to Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University, “If you are a student coming from a poor household, you are more likely to do better academically in a small school environment than in a large school environment.”[4]


One solution might be to reduce the geographic size of the urban districts by removing the “doughnut” from the outside of the area. The students living in this doughnut area would then go away from town to the rural districts, rather than going in toward the urban hole. They would basically be reverse-bused out of town.


There are many questions, including what to do with school buildings in the doughnut. The decisions about where and how the doughnut is to be shaped would be determined locally, but the Legislature could set up a special fund allowing the new district to “buy” the building if that was the boundary change decided.


Questions were raised about how the transition might work and what would happen if the parents/student didn’t want to attend the new district. There are procedures already set up for dealing with merging rural districts which could be used to address this issue by phasing in the changes, and the current open enrollment process could be used to open enroll “out” of the potential new district and remain in the current district.


As the Legislature grapples with education funding and how to reverse stagnant student achievement, it is worth considering if maybe geographically making the large urban districts smaller and the small rural, doughnut, districts larger might be the answer.


Dave Roederer, the director of the Iowa Department of Management, said recently in The Des Moines Register that “there are no easy answers as Iowa struggles with the evolving demographics of more sparsely populated rural communities.”[5]


There are also no easy answers to out-of-control education costs combined with stagnant achievement in the large urban districts. New ideas must be considered, not just spending more taxpayer money. Thinking outside the box, or at least outside the doughnut box!


Urban NAEP Scores


Iowa City School District


[1] The Annual Condition of Education Report 2014, Iowa Department of Education, <> pp. 170 – 176, accessed on February 16, 2015.
[2] B. Adam Burke, “ICCSD sets Feb. 5 vote for district’s revenue purpose statement update,” North Liberty Leader, November 14, 2012, <> accessed on February 16, 2015.
[3] “Legislative Report Student Achievement, Accountability, and Professional Development,” Iowa Department of Education, January 2015, pp. 3 – 10, <> accessed on February 16, 2015.
[4] Mary Stegmeir, “Consolidation Trend Continues in Rural Iowa Districts,” The Des Moines Register, June 8, 2014, <> accessed on February 16, 2015.
[5] Jason Clayworth, “Illegally in the red: Iowa schools plead for leniency,” The Des Moines Register, January 24, 2015, <> accessed on February 16, 2015.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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