In the late 1800s, even before statehood, there was a law in the Oklahoma Territory that each township would have four school districts.
This led to a situation where, by 1907, when the state was created, there were 5,656 districts, according to the state Education Department.
That number decreased to 4,869 in 1930, 2,177 in 1950 and 653 by 1970.
Going into this school year, there are 521 districts in Oklahoma — quite a reduction over time, but still enough for the state to rank eighth nationally for school districts per capita.
There have been about 100 consolidations or annexations since 1977.
While urban areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa have the biggest districts in the state, small districts proliferate in rural communities, where people often oppose consolidation efforts.
“The idea of giving up control over your school district in your local community is not the conservative way,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Consolidation has gone against the basic political personality of Oklahoma.”
No law is in place that requires Oklahoma school districts to consolidate, but there is an incentive to merge through House Bill 1017. Passed in 1990, the education reform bill offers money to newly consolidated school districts.
Since the bill passed, 83 schools either have annexed or consolidated, according to the state Education Department.
The backbone of the case for consolidation rests on the belief that it would greatly reduce costs. The idea is that with fewer school districts in a county, fewer salaries need to be paid.
“But rural Oklahoma will make the case, with some vigor, that if you want the state to be strong, then you've got to encourage economic development in rural Oklahoma,” Blackburn said. “Without an educated populace, how can we modernize with a need of an educated workforce?”
Oklahoma has many rural communities. The state ranks fourth in the nation for number of farms within a state and produces $7 billion worth of agricultural products each year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
According to data from the 2010 census, just over a third of Oklahoma's population lives in rural areas of fewer than 2,500 residents, making it the state with the 16th highest rural population percentage.