Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Solving last week’s local government decentralization riddle: school districts massively consolidated, special districts exploded, and counties and city governments stayed about the same

Last week I posted about some curious U.S. Census data I found that appeared to indicate that the number of local government units had shrunk by 42 percent since 1942, a trend that would seemingly buck conventional beliefs that local governments had, in fact, radically decentralized in the post-World War II era.

I couldn’t let this go, and this week contacted several researchers at the U.S. Census who gave some color to the data.  I thought I would pass along several aspects of what we discussed because it is not readily available on the Census website (or, at least, to someone like me who couldn’t otherwise find it).  Key points: 

--The aggregate numbers of local government units do, in fact, show a decrease in the number of local government units since 1942.

--However, the overall numbers are skewed by the dramatic centralization of one very particular type of local government unit:  the school district.  For instance, in 1942, there were 108,579 school districts but by 2007 (2012 data in this set is being released in the fall) there were just 13,051 school districts in the U.S.  For this data set, there are also numbers for 1932, in which there were 128,548 school districts.  That means we have just over 10% of the school districts in 2007 that we had in 1932 and with about three times the population.  Wow. 

--If you remove school districts from the data, it turns out that the conventional wisdom is right about special districts.  In 1942 there were just 8,299 special districts while in 2007 there were 37,381 special districts.  Wow…and in line with the narrative I typically tell students about proliferation of local governments.

--The number of city and county governments in the U.S. has largely held steady since the 1940s, though with regional variation.

This is really fun data to review.  For those who want to learn more, the data is available here.  Download file “”.  Open file “1_Govt_Org_Nat_State_Counts”.  Click on the “Table 3” and “Table 4” tabs to review data in this blog post.  Unfortunately, the tables are too large to be reproduced meaningfully as a jpeg on this blog, so you’ll have to go to the source if you’d like to see the detailed numbers.

A big thank you to the great folks at the U.S. Census, Joseph Dalaker and Liz Accetta, who provided amazing research assistance and helped me solve this riddle in just a few short days!

Stephen R. Miller

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Stephen, as I show in my 2009 book, Making the Grade, almost all of the decline in school district numbers comes from consolidation of rural, mostly one-room schools, into larger districts. The one-room school statistically disappeared in 1972, and the number of school districts has held steady since then, with very little change in the number of urban and suburban districts. In terms of the districts that serve most of the population, their borders have been remarkably stable for about 70 years.
Special districts are another matter. They have increased, but I remain puzzled as to why they occupy scholars' attention as much as they do. Almost all of them do only one thing, have no general police powers, and tax only those they serve, mostly in proportion to benefits. The major exceptions are western water districts, whose main curiosity is their Court-permitted deviation from popular voting standards.

Posted by: bill fischel | May 17, 2013 7:25:11 PM

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