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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.
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.”