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Research: Vast Majority of South Dakota Schools Too Small to Produce Best Bang for the Buck

Dr. Harris’s working paper on the economic illogic of vouchers includes one sentences that will cause heartburn for constituents of the vast majority of South Dakota K-12 schools:

This is why research suggests that, to be viable, schools need at least a few hundred students (Andrews, Duncombe, & Yinger, 2002; Harris, 2007), which economists call the minimum efficient scale [Douglas N. Harris, Tulane University, “How Free Market Logic Fails in Schooling—and What It Means for the Role of Government,” Annenberg/Brown University EdWorkingPaper No. 23-866, November 2023].

Let’s specify that “few” hundred:

The best of the cost function studies suggest that sizeable potential cost savings in instructional and administrative costs may exist by moving from a very small district (500 or fewer pupils) to a district with [circa] 2000–4000 pupils. The findings from production function studies of schools are less consistent, but there is some evidence that moderately sized elementary schools (300–500 students) and high schools (600–900 students) may optimally balance economies of size with the potential negative effects of large schools [Matthew Andrews, William Duncombe, and John Yinger, “Revisiting Economics of Size in American Education: Are We Any Closer to a Consensus?Economics of Education Review, June 2002].

The best bang for the educational buck comes from elementary schools with 300 to 500 students and high schools with 600 to 900 students.

According to the South Dakota Department of Education’s Fall 2022 enrollment figures, out of 205 public and private high schools in our state, eight had student counts in the optimal 600–900 range: Mitchell, Sturgis Brown, Pierre Riggs, Huron, Spearfish, Douglas, Sioux Falls O’Gorman, and Tea. Of 262 elementary schools, 67 have student numbers in the optimal 300–500 range. 11 of 148 school districts operate within the optimal 2000–4000 enrollment range; 5 districts are above that range (Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Harrisburg, Brandon Valley, and Aberdeen); 132 are below.

That means 96% of our high schools and 74% of our elementary schools are operating at educationally and economically suboptimal numbers. 89% of our districts are too small and another 3% are too big to run at optimum efficiency.


  1. John 2023-11-05 13:05

    Thank you for sharing the analysis.
    It would be fascinating to view a similar companion study, if one existed, on the optimum range of county populations for economic and efficient service delivery.

  2. O 2023-11-05 13:34

    I am surprised that more schools have not attempted administration consolidation: state upper administrative costs over two or three districts while preserving the current physical structures/operations. Does everything need to centralize to get to any efficiency?

  3. jerry 2023-11-05 14:30

    Interesting article on how this could bring about change “Then he found out about Mali. Arguably, the catalyst for the current interest in white hydrogen can be traced to this West African country.

    In 1987, in the village of Bourakébougou, a driller was left with burns after a water well unexpectedly exploded as he leaned over the edge of it while smoking a cigarette.

    The well was swiftly plugged and abandoned until 2011, when it was unplugged by an oil and gas company and reportedly found to be producing a gas that was 98% hydrogen. The hydrogen was used to power the village, and more than a decade later, it is still producing.”

  4. Donald Pay 2023-11-05 15:20

    The analysis is interesting, I think in trying to shape planning, the following saying applies: If” ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, we’d all have a very fine Christmas. The problem: you start out with existing buildings and existing districts. It might be efficient if your district already fits their model. It costs money to make the changes to get to that model.

    When I was on the school board in Rapid City, the district was in the middle of closing down its 300 student elementary schools to build 600 student schools. Partly is was to take advantage of economies of scale, but also the 300 student schools were the standard when these older schools were built, but the schools were aging to the point where it was going to cost more in refits and repairs than to build new, larger but fewer 600 student schools. Of course the district could have built new 300 student schools to replace the older 300 student schools. The neighborhoods where we closed schools would have liked that, but, as I had to come to terms with, that would have required closing down programs to pay for the added costs. It made sense to me that the larger schools also meant more efficiency in programs like orchestra that many of us were trying to keep.

  5. Arlo Blundt 2023-11-05 19:35

    The 137 small, inefficient school districts skew the State Aid formula and make it excessively complicated in a convoluted downward attempt to keep those districts in business. It has been a fool’s errand for the last 40 years. The only way to get efficiency is to reward efficiency within the State Aid formula. It would involve real money and that frightens the Republican Legislature.

  6. DaveFN 2023-11-05 21:11

    It’s also long been argued we have too many universities in South Dakota.

  7. grudznick 2023-11-05 21:15

    Not just too many universities, Mr. DaveFN, but too many counties and too many school districts. Don’t even get grudznick started, or I will dance the Full Lar for you.

  8. grudznick 2023-11-05 21:24

    Far too many fatcat school administrators!!! Did I ever mention that grudznick hats fatcat school administrators? A blight, a tick on the public teat, they are.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-11-06 04:50

    Grudz, this article is not about your old saw about fat-cat administrators. Add some value to the conversation for once: can you come up with anything to talk about other than your three or four standby comments?

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-11-06 04:52

    The research isn’t about how many school boards or superintendents we should have, although it is interesting that the research says something about optimum size of districts as well as schools.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-11-06 04:56

    Donald, I am interested in the question of how many programs a school of optimum enrollment can sustain. Maybe a 600-student school would not be able to offer orchestra on top of band and chorus, or French on top of Spanish and Arabic.But maybe if we dug into the research, we’d find that the advantage that even larger schools have in being able to support more academic and extracurricular offerings is outweighed by the disadvantage of lower overall educational outcomes and efficiency. Perhaps there is a difference between offering everything and offering enough. Optimal versus maximal.

  12. Joe 2023-11-06 07:52

    My alma mater elementary school in Rapid City – Woodrow Wilson – was one of those scheduled for closure in the study referenced by another reader.

    What wasn’t mentioned is the strong possibility that the wealthier families in the Wilson attendance area most likely would have gone private or homeschool if Wilson closed.

  13. SuperSweet 2023-11-06 18:07

    The problem isn’t too many school administrators, the problem is too many school boards (districts). Fewer school boards = fewer administrators.

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