Valley Perspective; Dear Genethia Hayes: Smaller School Districts Are Better

The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec 26, 1999; by SHIRLEY SVORNY
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1999 all Rights reserved)

Genethia Hayes, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, was quoted in The Times as saying: "Why are they talking about breakup [of the district] when there is a new school board with a new thrust? If someone could tell me definitively that smaller districts are better than larger districts, then I would entertain a conversation."

Dear President Hayes: Smaller districts are better than larger districts. In Los Angeles, they would increase accountability and promote parental involvement in issues before the school board.

In addition, there is new evidence that competition among school districts, which a breakup of the LAUSD would promote, reduces district expenses and, even better, results in increased student performance.

Researchers who examine the consequences of political jurisdiction size find no higher costs in smaller districts. Education services are labor-intensive, limiting any potential economies of scale in production (unlike an automobile assembly plant, where size improves efficiency and reduces costs).

At a November summit on education, LAUSD board member Julie Korenstein raised two misconceptions about costs. The first is that a breakup would make it more expensive for the district to purchase supplies.

Savings on supplies cannot lead to huge efficiencies in school district operations. Almost all district spending is on wages, mainly of teachers. Savings on books, buses and other purchases cannot enter in a big way into the efficiency of a district. In any case, purchasing economies are exhausted at a fairly small size; the LAUSD is far bigger than a district needs to be. Recent reports even document the inefficiency of this enormous district; its own auditor has said that reforming its purchasing system could save up to $75 million a year.

The second misconception is that multiple districts lead to waste, that we don't need costly duplication in the form of multiple superintendents and school boards. But this claim flies in the face of evidence that very small political jurisdictions (cities, police departments, school districts) are no more costly to run and sometimes less costly to run, on a per capita basis, than larger districts.

Perhaps the way to view the "duplication" is to recognize that it increases accountability. Putting someone in charge of a specific area and holding her accountable for its performance will save money in the long run, rather than waste it. Despite claims to the contrary and reams of studies,
researchers have been unable to show that consolidation of government (larger governments) lowers the per capita costs of providing public services.

One point that has not gotten a lot of attention is that the mammoth size of the school district makes it susceptible to union influence. There is a connection between size, lack of competition and unionization. (Think of the American automobile industry in the 1950s.) Where political
jurisdictions are large, all else constant, unions have more power. This results in higher salaries--often unrelated to performance--and, even worse, inordinate job security that defies attempts toward reform.

So, President Hayes, there is a body of evidence--as "definitive" as evidence ever gets--that smaller districts would be an improvement over our current, mammoth district.

In the San Fernando Valley, I favor 17 autonomous districts, one for each high school, each with its own school board. This would promote accountability and innovation in education and, at the same time, create a strong sense of community in each district.

I am not surprised that you and other members of the school board do not favor a breakup. It is predictable that, once on the board, members' incentives shift toward maintaining the district's size. However, what would be best for students and parents, homeowners and businesses--all of
the stakeholders in our city--would be a large dose of local control and accountability in our public school system.

Caption: PHOTO: SHIRLEY SVORNY; PHOTO: (no caption); PHOTOGRAPHER: PHIL MEYERS / Los Angeles Times

Credit: Shirley Svorny is professor of economics at Cal State Northridge