Years ago, someone asked the infamous criminal Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. “Because that's where the money is,” he said.

And when someone asks why American School & University highlights the largest 100 school districts each September, the answer is, “Because that's where the students are.”

The top 100 public school districts in the United States represent less than 1 percent of the more than 14,000 school districts, but in 2004-05, they accounted for more than 20 percent of the nation's public school enrollment — 10,795,068 students. Here's another way to look at it: If you started combining the enrollments of the nation's smallest school districts to reach the number of students in the top 100, you would have to include nearly 13,000 school systems.

The money spent by the 100 largest districts to educate children and build facilities is impressive, too. In the 2003-04 school year, the 100 largest districts of 2004-05 spent more than $106 billion — more than 26 percent of what all districts spent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the end of fiscal 2004, the top 100 had outstanding long-term debt — the source of capital-improvement funds for most systems — of more than $62 billion, 24 percent of the total long-term debt for the nation's districts.

From year to year, most of the districts on the list remain the same; enrollment shifts typically occur gradually, unless a district merges (e.g., the Guilford County (N.C.) district, which consolidated with the Greensboro and High Point districts in the early 1990s) or breaks apart (as may happen in Omaha, Neb., and in some districts in Utah). In 2004-05, four districts were not on the previous year's list — Osceola County, Fla.; Brownsville, Texas; Henrico County, Va.; and Omaha, Neb. Those that fell from the list were Seattle; Shelby County, Tenn.; Newark, N.J.; and the Ysleta district in El Paso, Texas.

At the higher-education level, the 20 colleges with the largest enrollment remains virtually unchanged — 19 of the 20 schools are the same as the year before, and the only institution to break into the top 20 in 2004-05 was ranked 21st in 2003-04. At the top of the list is the University of Phoenix-Online Campus. Unburdened by the limits of geography or the need for classroom space, the online college has lapped the field with more than 115,000 students — more than twice the next largest campus.

Looking at elementary and secondary school enrollment trends over 15 years gives a clearer picture of the changes in the U.S. public school landscape. The top 100 districts in 2004-05 had 10,795,068 students; in 1989-90, those districts had 8,607,247 students. Eighteen districts that were not in the 1989-90 list are now in the top 100. The Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) district has climbed all the way to 40th; in 1989-90, it was the 102nd largest district. The top 100 district that has made the greatest climb in the rankings is Osceola County, Fla. In 1989, it was the 296th largest district with a modest enrollment of 17,769. By 2004-05, it had grown by 166 percent and was the 96th largest district.

The districts that have declined the most over 15 years are mainly urban districts. Washington, D.C.; Orleans Parish, La.; and East Baton Rouge, La.; each declined by more than 20 percent from 1989 to 2004. Detroit lost more than 34,000 students over that time, a drop of 19.4 percent, and fell from 7th largest to the 15th largest district. Other districts that experienced double-digit percentage declines from 1989 to 2004 were Baltimore (city of); Atlanta; Portland; Jefferson Parish, La.; and Granite, Utah.

As has been the case for many years, the list of the 100 districts is dominated by three states — California, Texas and Florida. They account for 43 of the 100 largest districts, as well as 43 percent of the students in the top 100.

The double whammy of population growth and countywide districts gives Florida bragging rights for most students represented — the 14 Florida districts in the top 100 had 1,884,277 students in 2004-05, including seven school systems with more than 100,000 students. Texas had the most districts on the list — 16, the same as last year. California had 13 districts in the top 100.

In past years, the enrollment data for the AS&U 100 list has come from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but as of the magazine's deadline, the agency had not yet released the 2004-05 information. NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider said that just prior to the planned release of the enrollment data, an analyst discovered an error, and the entire database had to be redone.

Instead, the data for 2004-05 comes from state departments of education or individual school districts. The financial data in the charts is for 2003-04 and comes from a U.S. Census Report, “Public Education Finances 2004.”

Kennedy can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.

Top 100 school districts by enrollment, 2004-05
Rank District Enrollment 2004-05 2003-04 rank 2003-04 expenditures 2003-04 per-pupil spending 2003-04 outstanding long-term debt Enrollment 1989-90 1989-90 rank 15-year change
1 New York City 1,075,338 1 $15,739,985,000 $12,644 $8,911,495,000 930,440 1 15.57%
2 Los Angeles 741,283 2 $8,206,329,000 $8,658 $5,088,144,000 609,746 2 21.57%
3 Chicago 426,812 3 $4,224,772,000 $8,356 $3,882,287,000 408,442 3 4.50%
4 Miami 365,456 4 $3,131,953,000 $7,297 $1,861,911,000 279,240 4 30.88%
5 Clark County (Nev.) 280,840 6 $2,291,888,000 $6,108 $2,937,970,000 111,460 14 151.96%
6 Broward County (Fla.) 273,231 5 $2,297,904,000 $6,742 $1,260,261,000 148,803 9 83.62%
7 Houston 208,945 7 $1,749,949,000 $7,207 $1,609,474,000 185,566 6 12.60%
8 Hillsborough County (Fla.) 188,610 10 $1,623,469,000 $6,678 $1,065,183,000 119,810 12 57.42%
9 Philadelphia 187,547 8 $2,421,758,000 $8,551 $2,989,303,000 189,451 5 -1.01%
10 Hawaii 181,897 9 $1,734,591,000 $8,533 $0 169,493 8 7.32%
11 Palm Beach County (Fla.) 174,082 11 $1,819,580,000 $7,332 $1,587,716,000 98,705 20 76.37%
12 Orange County (Fla.) 172,357 12 $1,313,658,000 $6,453 $888,773,000 96,244 21 79.08%
13 Fairfax County (Va.) 164,767 13 $1,887,675,000 $10,159 $1,008,308,000 126,790 10 29.95%
14 Dallas 158,027 14 $1,483,942,000 $7,468 $916,494,000 125,897 11 25.52%
15 Detroit 141,406 15 $2,021,123,000 $10,757 $1,570,299,000 175,436 7 -19.40%
16 Montgomery County (Md.) 139,393 16 $1,720,288,000 $11,162 $669,569,000 100,261 19 39.03%
17 Prince George's County (Md.) 136,095 18 $1,354,565,000 $8,647 $369,028,000 106,974 16 27.22%
18 Gwinnett County (Ga.) 134,761 20 $1,215,701,000 $7,550 $226,725,000 62,196 46 116.67%
19 San Diego 134,709 17 $1,564,648,000 $8,090 $1,089,058,000 119,314 13 12.90%
20 Duval County (Fla.) 127,469 19 $962,314,000 $6,341 $161,738,000 106,593 17 19.58%
21 Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (N.C.) 120,022 23 $1,019,823,000 $7,149 $1,059,764,000 75,903 30 58.13%
22 Memphis 117,740 21 $950,659,000 $7,484 $28,140,000 104,410 18 12.77%
23 Wake County (N.C.) 114,092 24 $960,576,000 $6,768 $1,029,899,000 62,474 45 82.62%
24 Pinellas County (Fla.) 112,540 22 $954,094,000 $6,753 $45,037,000 91,393 23 23.14%
25 Baltimore County (Md.) 107,701 25 $1,032,563,000 $9,063 $216,574,000 84,133 27 28.01%
26 Cobb County (Ga.) 103,447 26 $860,467,000 $7,714 $141,247,000 66,668 39 55.17%
27 Jefferson County (Ky.) 97,976 30 $847,073,000 $8,400 $411,978,000 91,353 24 7.25%
28 DeKalb County (Ga.) 97,282 27 $928,500,000 $8,268 $58,085,000 72,865 32 33.51%
29 Long Beach 96,319 28 $820,912,000 $7,289 $325,685,000 68,292 36 41.04%
30 Milwaukee 93,653 29 $1,165,164,000 $10,375 $440,468,000 92,061 22 1.73%
31 Albuquerque 93,338 32 $729,651,000 $6,814 $110,470,000 86,653 25 7.71%
32 Baltimore City 88,401 31 $996,535,000 $9,233 $78,662,000 107,782 15 -17.98%
33 Jefferson County (Co.) 86,877 33 $772,847,000 $7,839 $480,393,000 75,164 31 15.58%
34 Polk County (Fla.) 86,057 34 $634,997,000 $6,825 $340,598,000 63,932 43 34.61%
35 Fresno 80,760 35 $709,717,000 $7,635 $349,199,000 67,492 38 19.66%
36 Austin (Texas) 79,950 37 $801,078,000 $7,556 $452,007,000 61,666 49 29.65%
37 Fort Worth 79,769 36 $672,072,000 $7,194 $380,320,000 66,535 40 19.89%
38 Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) 79,314 40 $630,862,000 $6,549 $876,986,000 37,224 102 113.07%
39 Jordan (Utah) 75,716 41 $419,246,000 $4,542 $180,103,000 63,605 44 19.04%
40 Virginia Beach (Va.) 75,515 38 $669,722,000 $7,730 $329,364,000 68,348 35 10.49%
41 Northside (San Antonio, Texas) 74,649 46 $685,459,000 $6,645 $803,992,000 49,539 67 50.69%
42 Denver 74,412 45 $683,127,000 $7,852 $715,688,000 58,299 55 27.64%
43 Brevard County (Fla.) 74,345 43 $552,443,000 $6,346 $186,694,000 53,615 58 38.66%
44 Fulton County (Ga.) 74,041 44 $859,621,000 $8,899 $214,172,000 40,280 95 83.82%
45 Anne Arundel County (Md.) 73,991 42 $722,780,000 $8,661 $191,904,000 64,104 41 15.42%
46 Mesa 71,246 39 $468,828,000 $5,719 $230,185,000 61,636 50 15.59%
47 Lee County (Fla.) 70,843 52 $645,480,000 $6,884 $461,480,000 40,569 94 74.62%
48 Nashville-Davidson County (Tenn.) 70,089 49 $705,557,000 $8,304 $396,969,000 68,473 34 2.36%
49 Granite (Utah) 68,568 47 $398,137,000 $4,749 $0 77,515 29 -11.54%
50 Guilford County (N.C.) 67,593 51 $529,713,000 $7,125 $194,520,000 23,981 195 181.86%
51 Seminole County (Fla.) 66,336 54 $477,191,000 $6,156 $253,600,000 46,499 74 42.66%
52 Prince William County (Va.) 66,300 58 $650,739,000 $8,071 $387,746,000 40,991 86 61.74%
53 Mobile (Ala.) 65,213 55 $474,814,000 $6,417 $241,935,000 67,620 37 -3.56%
54 Cleveland 65,079 48 $821,888,000 $10,420 $188,620,000 69,812 33 -6.78%
55 Volusia County (Fla.) 65,011 57 $561,034,000 $6,612 $342,936,000 45,775 75 42.02%
56 Orleans Parish (La.) 64,920 50 $531,254,000 $7,276 $410,700,000 84,428 26 -23.11%
57 Greenville (S.C.) 63,242 56 $621,286,000 $6,351 $909,227,000 50,849 62 24.37%
58 El Paso 63,216 59 $514,393,000 $7,442 $258,445,000 61,729 48 2.41%
59 Fort Bend (Texas) 62,853 65 $451,127,000 $6,553 $473,281,000 33,165 120 89.52%
60 Washington, D.C. 62,306 53 $1,087,040,000 $12,801 $0 81,301 28 -23.36%
61 Arlington (Texas) 62,267 62 $449,796,000 $6,294 $512,539,000 42,651 81 45.99%
62 Washoe County (Nev.) 61,755 63 $465,938,000 $6,430 $385,177,000 36,662 104 68.44%
63 Santa Ana (Calif.) 61,693 61 $582,080,000 $7,597 $191,752,000 42,785 80 44.19%
64 Columbus (Ohio) 60,924 60 $729,035,000 $10,444 $238,373,000 64,051 42 -4.88%
65 Pasco County (Fla.) 60,615 70 $416,461,000 $6,428 $200,745,000 32,164 125 88.46%
66 Davis (Utah) 60,606 66 $377,999,000 $4,829 $210,890,000 53,425 59 13.44%
67 Tucson 60,461 64 $438,681,000 $6,683 $266,600,000 56,115 57 7.74%
68 San Bernardino (Calif.) 59,105 68 $491,834,000 $7,238 $108,454,000 39,033 97 51.42%
69 Elk Grove (Calif.) 58,670 74 $518,361,000 $7,094 $113,360,000 24,390 190 140.55%
70 Boston 57,742 67 $1,042,803,000 $15,018 $121,979,000 59,597 53 -3.11%
71 North East (San Antonio, Texas) 57,599 72 $479,264,000 $6,841 $762,155,000 40,644 92 41.72%
72 San Francisco 57,144 69 $548,893,000 $8,126 $0 61,935 47 -7.74%
73 San Antonio 56,639 71 $583,207,000 $7,838 $542,775,000 58,720 54 -3.54%
74 Aldine (Texas) 56,375 73 $442,759,000 $7,190 $256,375,000 38,245 99 47.40%
75 Chesterfield County (Va.) 56,242 75 $419,629,000 $6,789 $251,882,000 42,864 79 31.21%
76 Garland (Texas) 56,236 76 $404,488,000 $5,892 $283,184,000 36,029 107 56.09%
77 Knox County (Tenn.) 53,130 78 $375,746,000 $6,491 $216,553,000 49,926 65 6.42%
78 Cumberland County (N.C.) 53,045 77 $354,980,000 $6,349 $86,575,000 44,327 76 19.67%
79 Alpine (Utah) 52,825 83 $324,714,000 $4,471 $283,439,000 38,246 98 38.12%
80 Plano (Texas) 52,406 81 $628,283,000 $7,455 $722,220,000 29,209 141 79.42%
81 Sacramento 51,420 80 $578,720,000 $8,373 $311,325,000 48,061 70 6.99%
82 Jefferson Parish (La.) 51,356 82 $395,163,000 $6,964 $141,689,000 57,663 56 -10.94%
83 Clayton County (Ga.) 50,784 85 $432,851,000 $7,359 $0 33,641 115 50.96%
84 Capistrano (Calif.) 50,615 88 $362,218,000 $6,586 $94,070,000 24,846 184 103.71%
85 Atlanta 50,536 79 $753,466,000 $11,502 $0 61,373 51 -17.66%
86 San Juan (Calif.) 50,089 84 $448,192,000 $7,577 $209,805,000 46,640 73 7.39%
87 Garden Grove (Calif.) 50,030 87 $367,318,000 $7,034 $0 36,725 103 36.23%
88 Oakland (Calif.) 49,214 86 $522,597,000 $8,204 $346,961,000 50,741 64 -3.01%
89 Anchorage 49,182 89 $415,313,000 $8,282 $438,042,000 40,924 88 20.18%
90 Forsyth County (N.C.) 49,004 93 $405,079,000 $7,046 $229,482,000 37,842 101 29.50%
91 Wichita (Kan.) 48,627 90 $417,141,000 $7,637 $252,705,000 47,251 71 2.91%
92 Howard County (Md.) 48,219 92 $550,863,000 $10,000 $239,450,000 28,874 143 67.00%
93 Cherry Creek (Colo.) 47,868 99 $405,690,000 $7,527 $405,130,000 28,027 149 70.79%
94 Portland (Ore.) 47,674 91 $447,490,000 $8,573 $537,303,000 53,116 60 -10.25%
95 Pasadena (Texas) 47,440 100 $342,663,000 $6,297 $246,228,000 35,251 109 34.58%
96 Osceola County (Fla.) 47,325 110 $338,024,000 $6,087 $247,489,000 17,769 296 166.33%
97 Brownsville (Texas) 46,846 102 $388,650,000 $7,270 $101,230,000 34,998 110 33.85%
98 Henrico County (Va.) 46,711 103 $373,005,000 $6,801 $191,398,000 31,963 126 46.14%
99 Omaha (Neb.) 46,549 101 $445,152,000 $7,486 $284,999,000 41,251 85 12.84%
100 East Baton Rouge (La.) 46,353 98 $406,480,000 $8,187 $0 60,279 52 -23.10%
Source: State departments of education; individual school districts; and U.S. Census Bureau.
20 largest enrollments, colleges and universities, 2004-05
Rank Institution 2004-05 enrollment 2003-04 enrollment 2003-04 rank % change
1 University of Phoenix-Online Campus 115,794 71,052 1 60.9
2 Miami Dade Community College 57,026 58,490 2 -2.5
3 Ohio State University 50,995 50,731 4 0.5
4 University of Minnesota-Twin Cities 50,954 49,474 5 3.0
5 University of Texas at Austin 50,377 51,426 3 -2.0
6 Arizona State University at Tempe 49,171 48,901 6 0.6
7 University of Florida 47,993 47,858 7 0.3
8 Michigan State University 44,836 44,542 9 0.7
9 Texas A&M University 44,435 44,813 8 -0.8
10 University of Central Florida 42,465 41,535 12 2.2
11 City College of San Francisco 42,438 42,043 10 0.9
12 University of South Florida 42,238 40,945 13 3.2
13 Pennsylvania State University 41,289 41,795 11 -1.2
14 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 40,687 40,458 15 0.6
15 University of Wisconsin 40,455 40,879 14 -1.0
16 Purdue University 40,108 40,376 16 -0.7
17 Houston Community College System 39,715 37,846 21 4.9
18 University of Michigan 39,533 39,031 18 1.3
19 New York University 39,408 38,188 20 3.2
20 University of Washington-Seattle 39,199 39,135 17 0.2
Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Breaking up is hard to do

Historically, the number of school districts in the United States has dwindled, and mergers of school systems have led to districts that serve larger numbers of students. But in a few cases, steps have been taken to reduce the size of districts, including some among the top 100 districts:

  • In Orem, Utah, some residents want the city to break away from the Alpine district (79th on the 2004-05 list with 52,825 students). A group called Friends of Orem School District argues that the large size of the Alpine district “results in an unresponsive ‘one size fits all’ management paradigm where parents don't have adequate input into their children's education.”

    Legislation approved last year allows Utah cities to try to establish their own districts. A feasibility study by the city of Orem found that an Orem-only district would have about 15,900 students; a district made up of the cities of Orem, Lindon, Pleasant Grove and Vineyard would have 25,770 students — about half of the Alpine enrollment.

    The arguments of the pro-breakup group did not convince Orem officials. The city council voted in August not to put the breakup question on the November ballot.

  • In Nebraska, the Omaha district (ranked 99th in 2004-05) is to be split into three districts in 2008 as part of legislation approved earlier this year. The state legislature decided to split the district as an alternative to the district's plans to claim territory in neighboring school systems as part of a “One City, One School District” proposal.

    The plan could be changed before it goes into effect. Opponents of the plan have challenged the breakup. They contend that the division of the Omaha district is mostly along racial lines and amounts to state-sponsored segregation.

  • The devastation of the Orleans Parish (La.) school district caused by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina has led to the virtual dismantling of that system. The district, already struggling academically and financially, had more than 60,000 students before the hurricane. It was ranked the 64th-largest district in 2004-05.

    This year, many fewer students are being served in the Orleans Parish by public schools — a combination of charter schools, schools under the control of the state of Louisiana in a “recovery district,” and a handful of schools still managed by what remains of the Orleans Parish district.

Enrollment flat, costs not

While student numbers have climbed rapidly in other districts, enrollment in the Anne Arundel County (Md.) district hasn't changed much in the last decade. In 1995, it had 71,383 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers peaked in 2001 at a little more than 75,000, and in 2004, it was the 45th largest district in the United States and reported an enrollment of 73,991. Over the next 10 years, projections show minimal growth in district enrollment.

But even with relatively stable enrollment numbers, a district the size of Anne Arundel can see its facility costs accumulate quickly. Growth may be held in check overall, but a large district still can have pockets of booming development where new classrooms are needed. Even if growth is not providing an impetus for new facilities, the continual aging of existing school buildings necessitates expensive renovations or replacements.

How expensive? The Anne Arundel district commissioned a facilities master plan earlier this year from MGT of America that put the price tag at nearly $1.5 billion over 10 years. It calls for spending $453 million on elementary facilities, $431 million on middle schools and $532 million on high schools. Upgrades of countywide facilities would account for another $75 million.

The consultant assessed each school's condition, how well space was being utilized, its technology readiness and its educational suitability, and used the data to establish priorities. Facilities that have the poorest conditions or that exceed capacity the most should be upgraded first, the report recommends.

Phase 1, which would take three years, calls for replacing eight elementary schools — at costs ranging from $17 million to $25 million per facility — and two high schools, each of which would cost more than $114 million. In phases 2 and 3, each of which also would take three years, most of the recommended projects are renovations or additions.

The report also urges the district to take steps to utilize its existing buildings more effectively.

“A key component of the facilities master plan is the efficient use of existing facilities,” the report says. “One of the primary components in accomplishing this objective is the need to update boundaries regularly … It needs to occur quickly and at regular intervals.”

The consultant also recommended that Anne Arundel end its heavy reliance on portable classrooms. “The use of portables as a long-term solution is counterproductive,” the report says. “When portables reach a point of housing more than 10 percent of the student body at a particular school, the strain on the core facilities causes deterioration at a more rapid pace and results in higher deferred-maintenance costs.”

Even cyberschools have facility needs

On the list of the U.S. colleges and universities with the largest enrollments in 2004-05, the University of Phoenix-Online Campus clearly stands out.

It is the only institution on the list that operates predominantly online. That enabled the school to boost its enrollment by nearly 44,000 students in 2004-05 without having to come up with the classrooms, desks and office space needed on a “bricks-and-mortar” campus.

Still, the University of Phoenix-Online Campus does need space. It is employing growing numbers of people to help run the school. For instance, notes public relations director Joe Cockrell, the school's call center receives 87,500 calls a week.

So, the university is building a 36-acre campus in Phoenix. The Riverpoint Center will have 600,000 square feet of space to accommodate more than 7,000 workers, as well as the school's network of computer servers and other technology infrastructure. The project also includes two parking structures that will hold more than 4,000 vehicles.

The center is scheduled to open in 2007. Meanwhile, enrollment for 2006 surpasses 175,000.