Education Opinion

Time to Break Up Giant School Districts

By Walt Gardner — January 18, 2016 3 min read
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The beginning of the new calendar year is a propitious time to question whether the nation’s largest school districts can ever deliver a quality education (“Principals’ Union Says Mayor de Blasio Has Lost Focus on Students,” The New York Times, Jan. 11, and “What new L.A. schools chief Michelle King needs to do now,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 15).

The New York City and Los Angeles school systems, the largest and second largest, respectively, are cases in point. Both have consistently shortchanged students they are supposed to educate. I maintain that they are ungovernable and will remain ungovernable because of their size. I’ll take each district separately.

The union representing the 6,000 members of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators has gone on record that it has lost confidence in the Bill de Blasio administration. (In New York City, the mayor is the head of public schools.) Principals in 94 of the district’s lowest-performing schools complain that they are swamped with paperwork, meetings and micromanagement, to the point that they cannot do what they believe is best for their students.

The district’s chancellor, Carmen Farina, counters that autonomy has to be earned. When it isn’t, principals are replaced. To date, roughly one third of principals in these underperforming schools have fallen into that category. Adding to the problem is that the number of complaints received by the special commissioner of investigation has reached an all-time high of 5,566. Although graduation rates are at record levels at 70 percent, taxpayers have not forgotten the New York Post‘s articles titled the “EZ-Pass” scandal that documented grade tampering and questionable summer-school programs (“The phoniest statistic in education,” Thomas Fordham Institute, Jan. 13).

The situation in Los Angeles is not much better. When Superintendent John Deasy resigned in Oct. 2014, he was replaced by Ramon Cortines as interim superintendent. Deasy’s tumultuous three-and-a-half-year tenure was characterized by a botched $1.3 billion plan to give iPads to 640,000 students in 900 schools and by his testimony in the controversial Vergara v. State of California case. Although test scores and graduation rates improved slightly, the LAUSD is reeling from declining enrollment and a precarious financial status. On Jan. 11, Michelle King was named the new superintendent after a five-month nationwide search.

The district has long been known for heated politics and an assertive teachers’ union. The school board’s members have only exacerbated matters by failing to understand their job as elected overseers, which is why there have been eight superintendents over the last 20 years. Some have been outsiders and some insiders. But neither has mattered. This time the board selected King, the consummate insider, because of her experience as a student, teacher, high-school principal, and senior administrator in the district.

I don’t think anything significant will ever change in New York or Los Angeles unless both school systems are broken up into smaller, more manageable districts. Behemoths cannot fulfill their obligations to all stakeholders, no matter who is at the helm. I’m not saying that dismantlement will result in miracles. But I believe that smaller school districts will be in a far better position to serve students and parents because they are more nimble and more attuned to their constituents.

My proposal is not original. Over the years, there have been several such proposals, but to no avail. For example, on Oct. 7, 2014, a petition was circulated by the California Trust for Public Schools to break up the LAUSD, but it met with fierce resistance from vested interests (“Break up the Los Angeles Unified School District,” GoPetition). On Mar. 30, 2015, Education Next called for an overhaul of the New York City school district (“New York City’s Small-Schools Revolution”). If the goal is to create a governing structure that works for students, shuffling leaders will not do the job. Something more fundamental needs to be done. If not now, when?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.