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.
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.
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.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
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.
@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.
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.