The Congruence of American School Districts with Other Local Government Boundaries: A Google-Earth Exploration
36 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2007 Last revised: 4 May 2010
Date Written: April 1, 2010
Economists often casually assume that a school district and a city that share the same name also share the same territory, but in fact exactly congruent boundaries are rare. Using the overlap of school district and municipal boundaries available on Google Earth, I find that about two-thirds of medium-to-large American cities have boundaries that substantially overlap those of a single school district. The degree of overlap, however, varies greatly by region and state, ranging from nearly perfect congruence in New England, New Jersey, and Virginia, to hardly any in Illinois, Texas, and Florida. Larger and older municipalities tend to have boundaries that closely match those of a single school district.
The latter sections of the paper attempt to explain why school districts diverge from municipal boundaries and why they sometimes ended up with county boundaries. Modern school districts are the product of consolidations of one-room school districts from 1900 to 1970. Contrary to much historical scholarship, I argue that, outside the South, these consolidations were consented to by local voters. They preferred districts whose boundaries conformed to their everyday interactions rather than formal units of government. The South ended up with county-based school districts because segregation imposed diseconomies of scale on district operations and required larger land-area districts. The conclusion offers a social capital reason for the durability of school-district boundaries.
Keywords: school districts, local government, consolidation, segregation
JEL Classification: H11, I22, R50
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation