The Sheer Number of School Districts Is Tilting the Playing Field

By Rebecca Sibilia for The New York Times

If we really want to balance school budgets in the wake of the coronavirus — and create more long-term equity in our public school system — we need to come to terms with the idea that we need far fewer than the 13,000 school districts that are currently in operation in the United States.

Today, the lines that define school district borders are largely arbitrary. They’re zigzagging areas of local control, a term that conflates two separate concepts: the ability to oversee a group of neighborhood schools and the right to keep the proceeds from property wealth in narrow jurisdictions. The more exclusively these borders are drawn, the more advantage accrues to wealthy districts, each of which has an independent financial structure, at the expense of the students next door.

This structure may explain the educational geography of Camden County in southern New Jersey, which contains 35 school districts, 23 of which are within a five-mile radius of the city of Camden. Half of these districts serve fewer than 1,000 students apiece, with wide wealth disparities. The median property in Gloucester City School District is worth about $120,000, but four miles away in Haddonfield Borough a median home sells for $500,000. From this wealthy tax base, Haddonfield can raise $13,500 per student, four times higher than what can be collected in Gloucester City.

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