The overwhelming majority of comments I hear from readers has to with their distaste for school district bureaucracy.

They resent the fact they send their children, their treasures, to schools and end up feeling treated like a number. Or that their hard-earned tax dollars go to public agencies, but they have no say in how that money is used. I hear these complaints every day. Sometimes, they creep into my dreams. I hope your dreams are more exciting.

Learning Curve 2016-01 (2)In my Wisconsin hometown, our school district was simple. A handful of elementary schools fed into one middle school, which fed into one high school. School choice didn’t apply. There were no other schools to choose.

If my parents had a beef, they took their concerns to the teacher or principal, or the superintendent, all of whom they were likely to see at the grocery store. Maybe on the same trip.


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But that world is not this world. In San Diego County alone, more than 40 school districts are strewn across 4,200 square miles, from San Ysidro to San Onofre. There are elementary, high school and unified K-12 districts.

They range in size from Spencer Valley Elementary School District – whose 35 students adorably attend a backwoods, East County schoolhouse – to the Frankenstein San Diego Unified, with its 130,000 students.

Smaller districts, with less bureaucratic layers, sound like they’re set up to be more responsive. But there are obviously benefits of having a large school district – otherwise we wouldn’t have them in the first place. So is there a “right size” for a school district? That’s what one of our readers wanted to know.

Question: Are small school districts more efficient and effective than big ones?  – Doug Clark, interested reader

A century ago, Californians lived in far-flung clusters and set up schools based on geography.

Around the 1940s, the state made it easier for school districts to consolidate, and started offering financial incentives to do so. Many did, and while the number of students in California exploded in the past 50 years, the number of school district decreased.

Even today, based on the way school districts are funded, large districts are financially rewarded for their size. School funding is based on how many students a district serves. And through its Local Control Funding Formula, the state allocates more money to districts that have higher percentages of English-learners, foster youth and students living in poverty.

If managed well, a larger district is more cost-effective than a small one, according to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

Small school districts – those that serve fewer than 1,000 students – are set up to lose money, according to the report: “In California alone, more than $64 million may be lost on small school districts.”

Even so, it’s difficult to correlate size and cost-efficiency. And research is mixed on whether size has anything to do with student performance.

“In many ways, the real problem is not district size,” says the report. “The real problem is our nation’s system for managing districts. Our current approach to district governance lacks an outcomes-focused set of practices and programs that ensure that dollars are well spent.”

In practical matters, there are a bunch of advantages to having a big district. More students mean more money, which means big districts can employ their own experts and specialists. Schools have more teachers and can offer more courses.

Because small districts in San Diego County don’t have the funding to provide for a lot of services in-house, they end up leaning on County Office of Education for help with information technology, special education services or teacher training.

Tim Glover, an assistant superintendent with the County Office of Ed, says small-district superintendents often end up wearing multiple hats, like serving as the spokesperson and the human resources director in addition to overseeing schools.

There’s one important advantage to being small, though: The district is more responsive to the people it serves.

Take a seemingly simple problem, like having the right number of teachers in a school. San Diego Unified’s demographics expert does what he can to anticipate schools’ enrollment numbers for the coming year and match teachers accordingly, but every year teachers are still being shuffled around into the second month of the school year.

Smaller districts are able to solve that kind of problem quicker, in part because they have fewer teachers to shuffle.

And a one-size-fits-all approach to school policies would ignore the diverse needs of its communities. Kids in Logan Heights have different needs than students in La Jolla, for example. It’s not so surprising that in past years parents in La Jolla threatened to break off their schools and form their own district.

Such a split is possible, but it isn’t likely to happen. It requires a petition, signatures from a percentage of voters across the district and approval from both the county and state boards of education, said Peg Marks, legal services analyst for the County Office of Ed.

Among other criteria, a group that wants to break off would also have to show the split wouldn’t worsen segregation (good luck with that, La Jolla). It might be a moot point. La Jolla schools have been able to pretty much do their own thing, anyway.

This might be a case where there’s not a clear, definitive answer to which size is most efficient. Small districts can save on costs by sharing resources with nearby districts, consolidating or relying on the County Office of Ed, which they do already.

Clearly, size matters. But there’s not one size that fits all.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Fact-Checking Donald Trump’s New Common Core Video (The Washington Post)

Rating: a stretch.

Analysis: Trump makes claims that contain an element of truth, but takes figures out of context so that the truth is distorted.

Here’s an example. Trump says the U.S. is 28th in the world when it comes to standardized tests. On the math portion of 2012 international tests, U.S. was actually ranked 27th – so he wasn’t too far off. But he also blames that fact on Common Core standards, which by 2012 had actually made it to very few classrooms.

Donald Trump, you’re fired.

• The Left-Right Opposition to Common Core (Pacific Standard)

Republicans and Democrats finally agreed on something: They hate Common Core. That doesn’t mean they actually met in the middle. Rather, in an example of “transpartisanship,” both the left and right found a common enemy:

“Some objections to the Common Core were shared across ideologies: a perception that the standards took a one-size-fits-all approach, created a de facto national curriculum, put too much emphasis on standardized tests, might threaten student privacy, and undermined teacher autonomy,” Pacific Standard writes.

• Teaching is like a magic show, says Teller the magician (The Atlantic)

Teller compares teaching to performance art, which is worth a read on its own. But here is my favorite part:

“Learning, like magic, should make people uncomfortable, because neither are passive acts. Elaborating on the analogy, he continued, “Magic doesn’t wash over you like a gentle, reassuring lullaby. In magic, what you see comes into conflict with what you know, and that discomfort creates a kind of energy and a spark that is extremely exciting. That level of participation that magic brings from you by making you uncomfortable is a very good thing.”

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, School Leadership, The Learning Curve

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    3 comments
    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    The benefits of scale are often offset by a non-responsive bureaucracy. The political problem of public schools in a large system is dwindling support in the form of student enrollment, public funding and civic engagement. The public system has tried to do too much with too few resources. It needs to be more flexible and targeted in its approach to win back strong middle class support. Take, for example, SD Unified. Would anyone who was designing a public school system from scratch say, "I think that the optimal size of a school district should be about 125,000 students?" I doubt it. NYC famously has more than a million students. The beneficiaries and advocates of big tend to be the labor unions and high-ranking administrators of such a system.


    In contrast small districts suffer from parochialism. Often the problem is too much responsiveness. The small district seems to lose its public identity as the district's policies are driven by the electoral majority of a narrow constituency. Cronyism and social segregation are foundational pillars of a politically popular small system. 


    Is there an optimal size? I would hazard a guess that a reasonable case would be made for public school districts of between 2,500-15,000 students centered on a political constituency committed to: 1) providing for diversity, and 2) focusing relentlessly on academic achievement for every student. 


    David
    David subscriber

    @Richard del Rio I agree with your size of a well functioning school district. Actually, this is the size of many districts and charter school organizations and they both do well. 

    EducatedMom
    EducatedMom subscribermember

    Mario, you forgot one of the most important obstacles inherent in a large district:  the LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan), which is supposed to the be guiding document for actions to improve student outcomes and district spending on those actions.  However, it is clear that it's virtually impossible to have meaningful stakeholder input into the creation of the LCAP in a large district such as SDUSD, where about 38 district staff, parents and community leaders are supposed to represent the needs 130,000 students and 14,000 employees in the district.  Analyzing the student data is mind-numbing for most, so LCAP meetings are mostly feel-good table discussions that result is very little tangible input that can be incorporated into the LCAP.  And in general, the needs of the majority or those sitting in the LCAP meetings become the sole focus, while the needs of specific schools (e.g. specialty programs in magnet schools like IB, or the needs at Lincoln HS vs La Jolla HS) or specific subsets of students not called out directly in the LCAP (e.g. GATE, VAPA) become marginalized or ignored.


    I'll also add that large districts create issues with school board representation, which makes it difficult for board trustees to effectively represent their constituents. The average district in California is about 10,000 students, and so the average school board trustee represents maybe 2000-4000 students?  This creates the opportunity to elect school board members through grassroots efforts and to have meaningful interaction with the school board.  By contrast, school board members in large districts are elected by deep pockets due to the costs of mounting a campaign representing such a large electorate, and interactions with one's trustee are via emails (which are often returned with auto-responses, if anything) and 1-3 minute public comment at Board meetings (if you're willing and able to drive down to them and potentially sit through hours of meeting to get your 60 seconds).


    Bottom line, too big or too small both have huge drawbacks.  



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