PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION : An Idea Whose Time Has Gone? : Breaking up the LAUSD only turns one problem into many; legislated change in how schools function is necessary.


There is a tremendous urge to make little school systems out of big ones. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has joined those publicly calling for the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest, and he is far from alone.

There are precedents. In 1987, Chicago decentralized its schools. New York has undergone several decentralization efforts over the past 25 years, and London disbanded the largest school system in the English-speaking world.

Los Angeles can learn from these reforms. Some of them did good things, but none solved the underlying problems of student learning--and neither will breaking up the LAUSD into six Long Beach-sized districts, or into a collection of Comptons, El Montes and La Canadas. The problem is deeper than just structural division; it requires institutional changes in both the classroom and the Statehouse. Without at least five big institutional changes, breaking up the LAUSD will simply make school problems less visible and create even greater inequity.


* The first necessary institutional change is to refocus education reform around increases in quality. Most education reform, including efforts in New York, Chicago, London and LEARN in Los Angeles, is about shuffling the deck of adult power among teachers, administrators and parents. Very little focuses on student learning.

To focus on quality improvement rather than governance, schools need performance indicators and quality development tools that help them get better in ways that standardized test scores don’t. For example, there was little information in the recent release of the Scholarship Aptitude Test scores that could guide a teacher or school. But if schools were structured so that teams of teachers could meet every day to discuss which children attended, which children had problems, which lessons seemed to work, teachers and principals could begin a cycle of continuous improvement by making the hundreds of individual decisions that change a school from the inside out.

No city or state has created a quality indicator system with instruments that allow teachers and administrators to assess their own progress.

* The second major change is to tie labor relations to school improvement. Unionism is not a barrier to educational transformation, but industrial-style unionism is. So is industrial-style management. If we want to reshape teaching around professional norms of dedication, craft concepts of high skill or artistic ideas about invention, then we need to refocus teacher rights and responsibilities. This can best be done by focusing reforms around individual schools, not smaller school districts.

To change labor relations, we need a new labor statute and a union ideology focused on school improvement. Civic reformers can’t give unionists a belief system; they have to create their own. But reformers can open the debate. In our upcoming book, “United Mind Workers,” Julia Koppich, Joseph Weeres and I sketch a system in which employees can determine how most resources within schools are spent and also take responsibility for educational outcomes and reviewing the quality of teaching.

* Third, schools need a new finance and incentive system. Transforming schools requires changing how we spend money, and the current system provides mostly perverse incentives. For example, schools are paid for custody of children, not learning. If the kids show up, the schools get paid. In such a system there is no incentive for quality increases, let alone increases in productivity. With some categorical programs, if achievement rises too much, the school loses the extra help it was getting.


The finance incentive system is not a creature of LAUSD--it is a state and national problem curable only in capitol buildings. Creating new, smaller school districts just mires the new school boards into a system driven by attendance accounting and categorical funding mandates rather than student learning.

* Fourth, to be effective any finance system needs to put decision-making capacity into the hands of the people who do the work. Schools need both the authority to spend money and an information system that helps them make wise choices. No school system in America has yet coupled financial decentralization with a powerful analytical system that tells people whether they are getting a decent bang for their buck. Creating smaller school districts won’t solve this problem either. Although suburban school systems may have fewer layers of bureaucracy, resources are often just as centralized.

Reformers could solve this problem by creating reliable budget and school performance software and giving it away to schools. If Quicken can put a family financial counselor on a diskette and Charles Schwab & Co. can create software that puts the savvy of a financial analyst in the hands of a small investor, why can’t schools have the financial analysis that allows them to make wise choices?

* Fifth, we need communities that help further the physical and emotional health and safety of children. Breaking up the LAUSD won’t make kids less poor or alter the fact that a large percentage of their parents are immigrants trying to scrape together a livelihood in the low-wage, unprotected sector of the economy. It won’t make their streets safe. And it won’t stop drugs or gangs.

We know that schools can be builders of communities. Some schools, such as Vaughn Street in Los Angeles and O’Farrell in San Diego, are examples of the extraordinary effort and dedication required. And the early evidence from these schools is that violence and other pathologies are decreasing. Creating smaller school districts won’t automatically create community-based schools.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to break up LAUSD. It is perhaps politically inevitable. But if the breakup is to do any good, it needs to be connected to fundamental changes in the underlying institution of education.