|Mayor and union can't fix schools; communities can|
|By Shirley Svorny, Guest Columnist, LA Daily News, 2/26/2006|
Villaraigosa is pushing a plan that would transfer control of the Los
Angeles Unified School District to city officials by 2008. In contrast,
state Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Granada Hills, has proposed legislation
that would break the district up into at least 15 smaller districts.
Transferring oversight would accomplish nothing. Villaraigosa's actions will merely divert attention from any breakup initiative and buy time for the status quo. He may be a friend of United Teachers Los Angeles, but his actions suggest he is no friend to schoolchildren. If Villaraigosa is successful, 2012 will come and go with no improvement in our schools.
With nearly 750,000 students, the district is too large and too constrained by demands of the politically powerful UTLA to foster an environment conducive to improving education. The only way to improve management and student outcomes is to break up the massive district.
If Villaraigosa is successful in his attempt to take over the school district, don't expect city officials to give local communities greater input and control. The teachers union would not stand for it. Several initiatives to devolve power in the school district without actually breaking it up have already failed.
Why anyone would expect the city to do a good job running the massive school district is beyond me. Los Angeles city government already has too much on its plate and has not shown itself to be adept at managing even the most basic local services. Its failure to address community needs, as evidenced by the 2002 efforts in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and Harbor areas to separate from the city, would make even the casual observer skeptical that the city would be effective in managing and reforming the school district.
LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer always has a reason why it's too soon to break up what is, by far, the largest district in the state. In December of 2001, he convinced the state Board of Education to reject a proposal by a San Fernando Valley group to break out two new school districts in the Valley. In his statements to the board, Romer pointed to newly implemented policies and improvements in test scores and asked for more time.
Now Romer says that it is premature to break up the district because the current $19 billion effort to build new schools will not be completed until 2012.
The size of the LAUSD offers parents little school choice (outside of charter schools) in the region. The district effectively has a monopoly over providing education in Los Angeles. With no similar districts to compare it to, supporters of the status quo can claim that outcomes reflect student transience and socioeconomic status rather than poor management.
The evidence suggests otherwise. An examination of California's Academic Performance Index for schools in the state reveals that larger districts have lower test scores.
This finding is to be expected. Larger districts make it hard for parents to make their children's needs known or to influence policy. Standardization stifles efforts on the part of schools to adopt policies that work for a particular community. Given the diversity in Los Angeles, this is clearly a city where one size can't fit all.
Parents and other concerned individuals should support Richman's proposed legislation, which would break the LAUSD into smaller districts of 50,000 students or less. This makes the most sense.
But does it have a chance? We saw the power of the public-employee unions in the recent California special election. Their contributions dwarfed those of other interest groups. Unless community leaders or neighborhood councils organize to speak out against Villaraigosa's effort and in favor of Richman's break-up plan, union interests will dominate once again.
There is no more important issue in our city than improving inner-city schools. Not only would we change children's lives for the better, but economic development would be given a huge jump-start if neighborhood schools were attractive to workers firms want to hire. Yet, if no one objects, Villaraigosa will lead us through another eight years of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic.
Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at California State University, Northridge.