Downsizing LAUSD

Today, Snell and Tokofsky debate whether L.A. Unified has grown too large. Previously, they discussed in low-performing campuses, the in improving public schools, the on public education and the of L.A. Unified’s dropout rate.

Decentralize and give schools more autonomy
By Lisa Snell

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
By David Tokofsky

Lisa, you remind me of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Let me try to remember the five days of our Dust-Up. On the first day of Dust-Up, you gave me Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City schools with police substations on campuses as a model for reform. On the second day, you gave me a new union representing less than 200 teachers to replace the nearly 50,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles. Then you threw in a Florida Pell Grant Program. On the third day, you gave me the libertarian ivory tower vision for vouchers and a copy of Milton Friedman’s University of Chicago treatise on market mechanisms, two other academics and tossed in Florida’s unconstitutional voucher program. On the fourth day, you gave me dropouts spreading everywhere, some Milwaukee program to solve low performance, a changed teachers union and some New York schools I could admire.

On the last day, you broke up with me and then broke up L.A. Unified because revolutions were indeed happening in the Belmont Zone of Choice (400 kids) and Crenshaw High (2,000 kids) and a few Ouchi statistics (0 kids) about how bad the district is. If I were a causal reader of The Times and part-time thinker about Los Angeles education, I might come to the same conclusion as you have, Lisa: that the district is indeed breaking up thanks to these glorious new schools.

But the Belmont Zone of Choice, as it is called, is made up of two schools that are, at this moment, barely surviving. To think Crenshaw is a phoenix rising from the ashes of failed accreditation is wrong. Let’s hope this new Crenshaw does not instead fail its accreditation this fall even if the surrounding community nonprofits are being given sizable contracts to preach that change has happened.

You forgot to add Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which recently received $50 million from a wealthy donor (who apparently has no business before the city) to change L.A. schools by getting everyone to preach “autonomy.” All week, your examples have indeed been thought provoking, but they have not pointed to the hard solutions that all public schools need.

Let me suggest some concrete ideas. First, L.A. Unified must finish the first phase of its new schools construction. For 30 years prior to the current construction, the district built barely any new schools. Second, the district’s personnel division must improve its standards for accepting teachers. For 20 years, we’ve had to find thousands of new teachers a year, a struggle of quantity. Now we must hire folks and train them about the diversity, needs and expectations of our students. We must retain them through new fiscal incentives such as subsidized housing, long-term healthcare and safer working conditions.

Third, the state, county and city must each pay their share for education. Sacramento cuts money from L.A. Unified, Los Angeles County dumps off its role in caring for children’s physical and mental health onto the district, and the city’s Department of Water and Power practically steals money from us. If we really want to improve urban districts, we ought to put our money where our voucher mouth is.

Fourth, we ought to use our own Academic Performance Index or another state accountability system, not the Lake Wobegon world of Bush’s No Child Left Act. If schools are not steadily improving across multiple measures, only then should we use some of your market techniques, Lisa. We ought not, however, mess with success like that of Balboa Elementary’s, which has the best-performing elementary students of all seven Southern California counties.

We ought to replicate schools like the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies and North Hollywood Magnet. We ought to encourage employees to take risks like those at Granada Hills and Palisades charter high schools did while they retained aspects of L.A. Unified that were important and successful. And above all, we ought to inspire teachers to teach their hearts and souls to the students who wait for adults to stop dusting it up and just teach.

I ought to stop here, but I want to offer my Manifest Destiny approach. When others talk about breaking up L.A. Unified, I think of something else. Some of our ideas and programs here should be offered to other L.A. County school districts that have test scores below even Jefferson High School and governance problems worse than those to which the state has sent fiscal monitors.

Perhaps under the No Child Left Behind Act, students trapped in small, low-performing districts in the Antelope or San Gabriel valleys could apply to L.A. Unified’s high-performing schools. Perhaps those families in Ladera Heights in Inglewood should formally apply to L.A. Unified rather than using fake addresses. Families in Ventura County who slip into L.A. Unified’s national Decathlon-winning El Camino High School should just move back to Los Angeles. Families in the part of Carson that must attend campuses in the Compton Unified School District have already petitioned to attend L.A. Unified.

Lisa, you make me think we should perhaps use eminent domain to annex the low-performing parts of the county that might be silently longing to be part of L.A. Unified.

David Tokofsky was an L.A. Board of Education member for 12 years. Before that, he taught social studies and Spanish at John Marshall High School for 12 years.

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