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School Consolidation and Inequality


  • Christopher R. Berry


One of the most remarkable yet least remarked upon accomplishments in American public education in the twentieth century is the success of the school consolidation movement. Between 1930 and 1970, 9 out of every 10 school districts were eliminated through consolidation. Nearly two-thirds of schools that existed as of 1930 were gone by 1970. The overall effect of these and related reforms was to transform the small, informal, community controlled schools of the 19th century into centralized, professionally run educational bureaucracies. The American public school system as we know it was born during this brief, dynamic period. While school consolidation represents arguably the most profound reform movement in 20th century education, almost nothing is known about its consequences for students. In earlier work on the consolidation movement (Berry and West, 2005), Martin West and I found that students educated in systems with larger schools earned significantly lower wages as adults. Like many others who have studied the relationship between school attributes and student outcomes, we focused our attention on average outcomes. However, there is good reason to suspect that school consolidation influenced the variation in student outcomes as well. In particular, by dramatically cutting the number of schools and districts, consolidation reduced an important source of betweenschool and between-district variation in educational quality. At the same time, however, consolidation was motivated by a desire to increase instructional specialization, which could be achieved by substantially increasing the size of schools and districts. Thus, within-school and within-district variation in education quality may have risen as schools and districts became larger and instruction more specialized. This paper investigates the relationship between changes in school and district size and variation in student outcomes, as measured by adult wage inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Christopher R. Berry, 2007. "School Consolidation and Inequality," Working Papers 0702, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
  • Handle: RePEc:har:wpaper:0702

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