The Daily News of Los Angeles
November 2, 2001 Friday, Valley Edition
HEADLINE: LARGE SCHOOL DISTRICTS AREN'T NECESSARILY BETTER
BYLINE: Donna Driscoll, Dennis Halcoussis And Shirley Svorny
ON Tuesday, residents of Carson will vote on whether they want to break away from the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District to create a new, smaller district, over which they will have direct control.
Carson voters might be interested to know that evidence from California Stanford 9 tests suggests that students perform better in smaller school districts.
Each year, California publishes Academic Performance Index (API) scores - a weighted average of students' scores on Stanford 9 tests - for each of its schools. We examined the effect on student performance if only district size were to change, keeping family income, parents' education, class size, school size, population density of the community and other characteristics the same. Based on 1999 test scores, shifting students from the Los Angeles Unified School District (which tested over 500,000 students) to the new Carson district (estimated at 21,000 students) is predicted to cause the API to improve by 29 points in elementary schools and 55 points in middle schools. For high schools, school district size didn't seem to matter.
For example, based on these predictions, the API for Carson's Delores Elementary School would improve from 594 to 623; the API for Carson's Carnegie Middle School would improve from 575 to 630.
The impact of district size on student academic achievement does not surprise us. The provision of education is inherently a local concern. Schools are nestled in communities where parents have a natural self interest in how schools are run. Parents' interest in their children's performance can be a powerful force toward improving education - no one cares more.
As a result, local schools have a strong incentive to customize their curriculum, to match school services to local needs.
In large regional districts, like the LAUSD, which serves 700,000 students in more than two dozen cities, the district usurps local control, weighing in on curriculum, staffing and policy matters. The size and bureaucracy limit parental oversight and supervision. This results in a lack of accountability. Educational policy is dictated by the political and personal agendas of bureaucrats who run the schools.
District rules and restrictions limit school autonomy, making it difficult for local school administrators to quickly and resourcefully resolve problems related to staffing or facilities.
Of course, there is no definitive answer for a community that can come from statistical work. Standardized tests do not measure everything parents care about. And we can't know for certain what will happen in Carson if voters approve detachment.
But voters should not be afraid that, somehow, a small district would be at a disadvantage relative to a larger district.
It is time to throw away the aging conventional wisdom that bigger is better, that large school districts have an inherent advantage in providing services.
The evidence from California schools suggests students do better in smaller districts.
If successful, the Carson election will replace a politicized regional bureaucracy with a local governing board, better able to meet the needs of students in Carson's schools.
Donna Driscoll, Dennis Halcoussis and Shirley Svorny are professors at California State University, Northridge. They are the authors of "School District Size and Student Performance," forthcoming in the Economics of Education Review.