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Philadelphia Restructuring Would Be a First for Big U.S. Districts

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The impulse to scale down jumbo-sized urban school systems is by no means confined to Philadelphia. Nonetheless, no big-city U.S. district has gone through the kind of full-blown breakup being advocated for the City of Brotherly Love.

Decentralization has been a prominent theme in many urban districts, including the nation's three largest: New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Only in Los Angeles, however, is there a powerful move to create smaller, fully autonomous districts within the current systems' borders. For an example of an actual breakup, some analysts look to Britain, where the London school system was divided into more than a dozen independent districts in 1987.

Christine Johnson

The lack of a direct U.S. precedent for the proposed Philadelphia breakup is matched by a dearth of research on the topic, experts say. While researchers have repeatedly examined the effects of school size, "there's a vacuum of solid research on district size," said Christine Johnson, the director of Urban Initiatives for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

The trend in American education in the past century has been to consolidate small or far-flung districts, largely in the interest of efficiency. While there has been no large-scale backlash against this trend, discontent with what are seen as distant, unresponsive, or obstructionist central bureaucracies runs strong in some cities. Chronically poor academic performance often fans such sentiments.

"I think there is a level at which these conglomerates become unmanageable, when a parent with a complaint needs a Ph.D. in communications to get through the bureaucracy," Ms. Johnson said.

Besides Los Angeles, districts that have witnessed serious breakup efforts include Albuquerque, N.M., and Clark County, Nev.

L.A. Rebels Press On

In Los Angeles, at least five separate efforts are afoot to carve new, independent school systems from within the borders of the 680,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Those efforts received a big boost from a 1995 state law that lowered the barriers to such a breakup.

One prominent community group is trying to create two new districts for nearly 200,000 students in the San Fernando Valley, north of the central city. Another seeks to carve out a new district that would serve an estimated 115,000 students in south-central Los Angeles.

Those two groups started collecting signatures this past fall with the goal of getting voter referendums on the ballot next year. ("Plan To Lop Off 200,000 Students From L.A. Unveiled," April 16, 1997.)

In nearby Nevada, where districts are conterminous with counties, community activists have been pressing for independence from districts that serve both Reno and Las Vegas. Proponents of forming a small district on the banks of Lake Tahoe near Reno had their hopes dashed by a gubernatorial veto last year. And activists in the Las Vegas area failed to win passage of legislation that would make it easier for them to secede from the Clark County schools.

Some opponents of the Philadelphia breakup see a precedent in New York City's decentralization three decades ago. At that time, political leaders bowed to demands for greater community control by creating 32 subdistrict school boards to oversee elementary and middle schools. The central board and bureaucracy retained control of high schools and many other functions.

In 1996, state lawmakers pruned the powers of the local boards in a move designed to strengthen the hand of the 1 million-student district's central administration.

Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck sees what he considers alarming similarities in the recent proposal for his city. "It looks like, sounds like, and feels like New York City in 1968," he said. "The irony of that is that New York state has decided that was a failed approach to governance. Why Philadelphia would want to undertake something that is a failure is beyond me."

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