Behemoth school districts are unmanageable

Within weeks of each other, New York City and Los Angeles, the nation’s first and second largest school systems, respectively, in the nation, named new leaders (“L.A.’s new schools chief Beutner pledges to learn and to take action,” Los Angeles Times, May 2).  Both Richard Carranza in New York City and Austin Beutner in Los Angeles face uncannily similar challenges.  If history is any guide, neither will be able to achieve anywhere near what they promise.

I say that because both systems have been struggling financially and academically for years.  Much of the problem is the result of similar demographics.  The large percentage of students from low-income homes bring huge deficits in socialization and motivation to the classroom through no fault of their own.  It’s hard to find a solution, but when the districts are huge it’s impossible.  Yet no one dares talk about breaking up the two behemoths into a more manageable size.  I made this point in a letter to the editor published in the Los Angeles Times on May 3 (“Another experiment”).

This has nothing to do with ideology.  Instead, it has everything to do with management.  I don’t believe that diversity and excellence can exist simultaneously when schools are faced with overwhelming numbers of students who are so needy.  I wish Carranza and Beutner well, but I remain highly skeptical about their ability to turn their respective systems around.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

8 Replies to “Behemoth school districts are unmanageable”

  1. Not clear how smaller districts would be more efficient than larger districts — at least in urban areas.

    Larger is inherently more efficient due to economies of scale.

    Seems that the main disadvantage of larger districts is the danger that a single stupid decision by one person could adversely impact hundreds of thousands of students while if there were ten smaller districts, a single stupid decision by one person could adversely impact only tens of thousands of students. Conversely, with smaller districts, a single brilliant decision by one person could positively impact only tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of students.

    Possibly, a single large district is more vulnerable to graft, cronyism and counterproductive political influence than ten smaller districts. But, that is not clear; the opposite might also be true.

    A downside of having many smaller districts in an urban area is that one or more of the districts (assuming the districts are drawn geographically) may be so overwhelmingly low-SES that the voters/parents/school-activists in a district cannot be relied upon to act rationally in selecting district leadership or setting school policies. I have a vague recollection of NYC experimenting with something called “Community Control” back in the 1970s or 1980s and it was a disaster — at least from the perspective of veteran administrators, teachers and support staff.

    Conversely, I would favor smaller districts in suburban areas. In many/most suburban areas, the majority of the voters are relatively anti-govt spending generally but relatively pro-govt spending for the schools. When a suburban district is large, school spending/taxing decisions are often/usually controlled by the elected local govt officials rather than by school officials (who are often appointed or, if elected, lack taxing authority). The voters never get to vote separately on school spending/taxing issues. When a suburban district is small, school spending/taxing decisions are more likely to be controlled by elected school officials who have taxing authority and the voters can vote separately on school spending/taxing issues. Allowing suburban voters to vote separately on school spending/taxing issues will usually result in higher school taxes/spending.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Smaller districts have fewer layers of bureaucracy than larger ones. As a result, they can move faster in implementing change. Economies of scale have not helped New York City and Los Angeles school systems. In fact, their sheer size has made it extremely difficult to be in compliance with state and federal laws. For example, New York City, which is home to the nation’s largest district, is still in violation of federal law regarding handicapped facilities. Moreover, huge districts have so many more competing groups to satisfy than smaller ones.


    1. Large districts will have more layers of bureaucracy, but will usually have fewer bureaucrats per 1,000 pupils (due to the economies of scale).

      Re compliance with state and federal laws — although it is true that NYC might have some facilities in violation of federal disability regulation, but it seems likely that, if the NYC system had been functioning as 10 separate systems, there would be more facilities in violation of the regulation. With the single large district, there would be only one program (with one set of lawyers, engineers, accountants and inspectors) to bring the facilities into compliance. With the ten smaller districts, there would be ten separate programs (each with each own set of lawyers, engineers, accountants and inspectors); it’s more likely that at least of the ten sets of experts would screw up, particularly since the experts doing the work for the smaller districts would more likely be generalists rather than specialists (since the smaller districts would be less likely to have enough specialized work to warrant retaining specialists).

      Re satisfying competing groups — it seems likely that each of the ten smaller districts would have to satisfy most or all of the same competing groups as the single large district. There will probably be gifted, LD, ESL, black, Hispanic, gay, teacher, support staff, management, anti-tax, pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union, pro-union, pro-Dem, pro-Republican, etc. groups in each district, whether a small or large district.

      Do we have any cases where a large urban district has broken itself in many smaller urban districts and the experiment was viewed as a success after five or ten years?


  3. Labor Lawyer: All good points. I don’t know of any huge school district that has been broken up into smaller districts and yet has been able to post improved outcomes. In the final analysis, it may be that the socioeconomic backgrounds of students are the crucial factor in success. It will be interesting to see what happens in New York City and Los Angeles, which have new leadership within weeks of each other. Their sheer size and vast diversity make me skeptical of significant improvement. Yes, there will be some success, but overall I expect things to stay virtually the same.


    1. Agree — no magic bullets for improving academic outcomes at inner-city schools. As I’ve argued before, the most rational approach is to improve the birth through kindergarten intellectual development and health of the low-SES children so they start kindergarten with the kind of academic potential that higher-SES children have when they start kindergarten. By the time the kids are in K-12, it will take a huge amount of resources to achieve a catch-up.


  4. Labor Lawyer: Absolutely right! So many children come to school with huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development through no fault of their own. Schools are not Lourdes and teachers are not miracle workers. Yet so often suggestions on how to prepare children for school are given, parents resent them.


  5. In Massachusetts every city and town has their own Supt and school board. They do not have county school systems. In some cases small towns will join together and form regional schools.
    In Florida there are only county school systems. The county I live in has over 100,000 students. The county next to me has over 200,000 students. I can honestly tell you that large school systems do not work.


  6. mathcoach2: I share your skepticism. I was educated on Long Island, N.Y., which is known overall for the quality of its schools. Districts there are quite small and manageable. The few that are failing are easily identified and promptly taken over. I’m not saying that size is the only factor, but it can’t be overlooked.


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