Oklahoma has more than 500 school districts--up to three times more than some states with similar student populations. KGOU listener Beverly Funderburk emailed How Curious and asked: “How did Oklahoma end up with so many districts?”
Jim Machell, Dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, made a list of Oklahoma school districts organized by student population.
Oklahoma’s two largest districts are at the top of the list: Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, each with between 40,000 and 45,000 students. The bottom of the list shows about 400 districts with fewer than 1,000 students apiece.
“I was surprised to learn that there are 29 school districts in the state that serve fewer than 100 students, which to me, is just baffling,” Machell said.
Oklahoma also has a large number of school superintendents.
According to Machell, the state could save about $27 million by combining, or consolidating, some smaller school districts into bigger ones and reducing the overall number of superintendents. He said fewer superintendent salaries would mean more available school funding.
Emily Wendler, education reporter at StateImpact Oklahoma, said it’s misleading to argue Oklahoma spends more money on administration because it has more school districts.
“According to U.S. Census data, that’s not true at all,” Wendler said.
She said while Oklahoma spends the same amount or more on superintendent salaries than other states with similar student populations, like Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina, it spends less on overall administration.
Wendler said superintendents in smaller districts often hold other positions ranging from school principal to bus driver.
“[If] you consolidated two districts with 100 students and you had two superintendents wearing lots of different hats, it’s not like you just all of a sudden have one superintendent wearing all those hats,” Wendler said.
She said the district may have to find other people to do those jobs after consolidation.
Some people argue focusing on the number of districts is a distraction from other education issues, like teacher recruitment and salaries.
The history of Oklahoma’s school districts starts with the 1889 Land Run, when the U.S. government opened up land in the state for white settlement after forcing out Native Americans. The federal government did not provide rules for early settlers.
In 1890, U.S. officials created Oklahoma Territory and borrowed laws from Nebraska before state officials started making school laws for Oklahoma.
According to Larry Johnson, special collections manager for the Metropolitan Library System, most early schools were subscription schools, meaning those who wanted education had to pay for it themselves. Oklahoma then started a school land system, in which towns would lease land to farmers and ranchers to fund schools.
In addition to district superintendents, each county had its own elected countywide superintendent. It was an effort to decentralize the school system and maintain local control, but Johnson said the politics of the job caused problems.
“Those were the days of machine politics and patronage and corruption,” he said.
Teacher and administrator quality varied greatly because elected superintendents could give school jobs to friends and supporters as rewards. A district could also set its own property tax rate to determine school funding, which often led to inequity.
“I read one thing that said only 25 percent of the schools had a United States map,” Johnson said.
By The Numbers
Oklahoma had just under 6,000 school districts when it became a state in 1907 because state law required it to provide free public schools and free transportation within a two mile radius.
In 1947, lawmakers decided to consolidate any school with fewer than eight pupils and did so for 1,600 districts, bringing the state’s total number to nearly 4,000 districts.
Larry Johnson of the Metropolitan Library said it was a major victory for lawmakers, but led to resentment in rural areas, like in Dewey County where his father was raised.
“His neighbors and family and friends all gathered at the local school for their Christmas party, for the ice cream social, for weddings. Any type of community event they would have at the school,” Johnson said.
Communities lost these gathering places when schools closed.
In 1955, Oklahoma lawmakers considered a measure on school integration called the Better Schools Amendment.
Johnson said this measure incentivized districts to integrate and consolidate by allowing integrated schools to keep the funding from their composite segregated schools.
The amendment passed and the number of school districts gradually shrank.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the state had around 600 districts in 1989.
Through the years, the Oklahoma Legislature has passed bills aimed at incentivizing and assisting with consolidation. The state now has 540 districts, including charter school districts.
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