Policy Documents

Take Advantage of Doughnuts, Improve Education and Save Money

Deborah D. Thornton –
November 1, 2010


There are eight urban school districts in Iowa – Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Sioux City, and Waterloo. Des Moines is the largest, with just under 31,000 students, and Council Bluffs is the smallest with 9,207.1 From 2004 to 2010, the certified enrollment in all Iowa public schools decreased by over 9,000 students, from 483,335 to 474,227. Like the rest of the 365 total districts in Iowa, most of the urban districts shrank in size. The overall urban district population, representing one-fourth of the total students, went from 122,737 to 120,425, a drop of over 2,300. During this period only Dubuque and Iowa City grew – by 273 students (2.6 percent) and 958 students (8.8 percent) respectively. 

As a result of the continuing decline in numbers of young people, 12 school districts in Iowa are currently consolidating, bringing the statewide number of districts down to 353 next year.

2 More will need to consolidate in the future because of declining population growth. Iowa’s population growth rate is currently 2.6 percent; nationwide, the rate is eight percent. In addition, the birth rate in the United States is 14.3 per 1,000, while in Iowa it is only 13.7.3 These trends will require significant changes in our statewide approach to public education.



The population size of school districts must be considered in light of student achievement. The non-profit, non-partisan Great Schools group, supported with funding from the Gates Foundation and others, ranks schools nationwide on factors such as standardized test scores, AP participation, and graduation rates. According to the Great Schools ranking, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque earned a "six" and Iowa City earned a "seven" of a possible ten. The other urban districts earned two’s and three’s.

In a doughnut-like ring around each of these districts there are a wide variety of suburban and rural districts, all much smaller and generally scoring better in the Great Schools rankings than their neighbors. For example, Waterloo, an urban district with 10,800 students, earned a three, while the doughnut districts around Waterloo – Cedar Falls, Denver, Dunkerton, Hudson, Janesville, Jesup, and Union earned from five to nine. In particular, the Cedar Falls district, with only 4,500 students, earned a nine.

4 While socio-economic differences in these areas account for some of the difference, Waterloo could probably provide a better education if there were fewer students. If the doughnut hole (Waterloo) was smaller and the doughnut was bigger, students could benefit from being in smaller, higher achieving districts.