Decentralize and give schools more autonomy
David, the Los Angeles Unified School District is just too large and tries to manage too many students through a large, centralized bureaucracy. L.A. Unified would benefit from smaller schools and an actual breakup of the district.
Between 1960 and 1984, the total number of school districts nationwide fell by more than 60%, from 40,520 to 15,747. During this time, the cost of school administration grew by 500% while the number of teachers rose by only 57%. In addition, several studies on school district consolidation have found that medium-size districts tend to have the lowest administrative costs, while very small and large districts have high costs.
In 2002, a research team led by William Ouchi, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, examined nine different school systems, including the country's three largest school districts. The team found that centralized management led to higher district spending on administrative staff and an increased number of administrators per student. It also found that L.A. Unified spent only 45% of its budget in the classroom. A Syracuse University study that surveyed more than three decades' worth of research on school district size found the optimal number of students for total cost effectiveness is 6,000. A Reason Foundation analysis of California districts supports that number. It found that large districts spend above the state average on noninstructional items even with large economies of scale and that districts with about 6,000 students spend about 90% of the state average.
Breaking up L.A. Unified into 6,000-student districts is unlikely, but a breakup of the district through competing charter school models from Green Dot to the Inner City Education Foundation might lead to a similar structure of small, autonomous school organizations.
In addition, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby has found that smaller and more numerous school districts are linked to higher student achievement. Her research indicates that regions with many school districts in close proximity, such as Boston, see higher student achievement than those with large districts, such as Los Angeles or Miami. Competition between school districts benefits students.
If it is not politically feasible to break up L.A. Unified, then school autonomy and empowerment should be transferred to principals and parents within individual schools. I know, David, that you have criticized New York City as a Potemkin village but you are criticizing the old New York. The real equality and choice in New York has just begun. Its public schools are implementing a weighted student-funding formula districtwide, encompassing 1.1 million students in 1,400 schools. New York schools began the transition to Fair Student Funding during its 2007-08 fiscal year.
Here is an actual example of how funding would change for the Walter Crowley Intermediate School in Queens when the money follows the child. The difference is between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 budget years. Under the old approach, Walter Crowley would have received $4 million for instructional programs, $1.2 million for special needs students and another $1.9 million for "consolidate programs," for a total budget of $7.1 million. Under the weighted, Fair Student Funding approach, Walter Crowley will receive $8.8 million. In short, funding students based on their individual characteristics and not based on a staffing model increases that school's budget by more than $1.6 million.
New York has partially paid for increases to individual schools by reducing centralized staff. There, the move to the weighted funding system has been in conjunction with a "right-sizing" of the central education office. Millions of dollars have been redirected to New York classrooms.
Schools such as Locke, Crenshaw, and Westchester high schools seem to be moving in the right direction toward autonomy and local control coupled with accountability for results. Similarly, the experiment with small schools in the Pico-Union area, allowing students to choose a campus that best fits their interests, is a step in the right direction. L.A. Unified's Belmont Pilot Schools Network will consist of five to 10 fully autonomous high schools launched over the next five years, each with a maximum enrollment of 400 students. Principals and teachers at those schools will work under a separate contract that frees them to determine school calendars, curricula, budgets and administrative structures.
Unfortunately, developments such as the Belmont choice zone and the Locke charter conversion remain the exception rather than the rule. If L.A. Unified is not broken up, it needs a major districtwide decentralization with more charters and real school autonomy, in which principals actually control budgets and funding is attached to the backs of children. Until then, too many children will continue to languish in low-performing schools.
David, charter schools in Los Angeles have thousands of students begging for a higher-quality education on their wait lists. As long as that is the case, L.A. Unified has not done enough to provide more choice and move away from a large bureaucratic model of school management.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.
What L.A. Unified really needs