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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

The Time Has Come To Break Up LAUSD
Schwarzenegger and Hertzberg want control turned over to communities…
[Gary M. Galles] 2/28/05

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has reawakened a long simmering fight over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He has endorsed Los Angeles mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg's proposal to break up the three-quarter-million-student district. And while Hertzberg's proposal is far from fully formed, the governor's endorsement has opened up the possibility of circumventing the political opposition that killed previous attempts.

The crossfire of charges and countercharges over breaking up the LAUSD already threatens to drown out discussion of the central question: Are bigger school districts more effective in educating students?

Massive districts such as the LAUSD have developed because education professionals, whose jobs are on the line, have answered "yes" for a long time. However, except for consolidations of tiny districts, the evidence, across many studies with different methodologies, data sets and time periods, has answered that question with a resounding "no." That suggests that the relevant issue is not whether, but how, to break up the LAUSD.

The long-promoted but empirically contradicted argument that larger-scale, centralized organization allows more efficient provision of education ignores the incentives created by such centralization. However, those overlooked incentives are crucial to an informed understanding of school district organization.

One important disincentive arises because education has no clearly defined goal. We don't agree on what to measure, much less on different measures' relative importance. But centralization requires uniform and objective measures of "success," because it distances evaluators from those with the most intimate knowledge of the problems and their potentially workable solutions. And the resulting attempt to objectify complex and subjective issues effectively throws away much of the on-site information necessary for appropriate decisions.

Further, teaching is an art, successfully practiced by people with highly varied instructional styles. It is not something whose proper practice can be imposed uniformly from on high -- making centralized control over this art a recipe for poor performance. Rather than making teachers and principals accountable to students and parents, and empowered to make appropriate improvements, it makes them answerable to bureaucrats, themselves largely unaccountable, and almost exclusively in those areas that can be objectively measured.

Educational research finds that successful schools have strong, accountable principals and focus on academic success. However, the larger the school district, the more hierarchical it is, which weakens the principal's authority, the agreement on goals, and the extent of monitoring (parents will be less involved when their investment in time and effort is unlikely to pay off in improved policies). It is far from surprising, then, that smaller school districts do a better job for their students.

Looking at incentives also helps us see the risks involved in breaking up large school districts. Like any other organizational change, it can be done in an ineffective way. For example, smaller districts will be no more responsive if principals are not given more power and tenured-for-life teachers can ignore parental input without consequences.

Further, breaking up a larger monopoly into smaller local ones, while still denying parents any substantial voice beyond which monopolistic district to live in, would hardly create true accountability. Such "reforms" would only erode public support for the sorts of real structural reforms that could successfully raise educational quality.

The time has come to break up the LAUSD. However, it must be done carefully. The process must come to grips with real trade-offs and legitimate disagreements. But unless schools re-establish true local accountability and flexibility, Los Angeles' schoolchildren will pay the price. CRO

copyright 2005 Gary M. Galles



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