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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023


LAWRENCE O. PICUS There is no question that the schools in Los Angeles need to be better. Far too many children are not receiving an education that will prepare them for the workforce of the next century. Many proposals have been made for improving our schools. Some show great promise, others will have no impact at all. One of the worst ideas being proposed is the breakup of the district. L.A. Unified School District is big. In fact, if it were on the Fortune 500, LAUSD’s $6.3 billion budget would rank as No. 261, larger than Unocal, General Mills, Boise Cascade and Hilton Hotels. It is the second largest school district in the United States with 684,000 students. The largest, New York, has 1.1 million students and No. 3, Chicago, approximately 420,000. In short, there is nothing quite like LAUSD nationally, or in California. Many have suggested that breaking up the district would lead to more efficient operation of the schools and that it would enable parents and community members to have greater impact on the new districts’ operations. Unfortunately, as currently envisioned, two San Fernando Valley school districts with between 80,000 and 100,000 students would achieve none of these goals, and in fact could set us back by failing an entire generation of children. I am afraid that if two Valley districts secede from LAUSD, we will spend the next 10 to 15 years worrying about how to divide up the assets of the district rather than spending that time seeking better ways to help children learn. The only people who will benefit from a break-up are the lawyers who will surely be involved. Meanwhile, instead of focusing on learning, administrators and teachers will focus on division of buildings, materials and arguing over which district is responsible for payments on bond issues. Certainly, no one can argue that will improve instruction. California school finance laws also work against the proposed Valley districts. Under our current system, school districts receive a revenue limit, which amounts to a fixed amount of money per child. Beyond that, categorical grants are provided to meet the special needs of individual children. LAUSD’s revenue limit is approximately $3,500 per pupil. The rest of the district’s substantial revenues come from categorical programs. It is unlikely that children in the Valley will qualify for as high a level of categorical funds as do children in other parts of the district. The result will be lower per-pupil revenues for the new districts. Moreover, teachers in the Valley tend to have more experience and more education, and thus higher salaries. When combined with lower per-pupil revenues, this seems a prescription for disaster, or at least much larger and poorly equipped classrooms. Proponents of a break-up argue that savings are available by reduced administration. I don’t believe it. Expenditures for administration as a percent of total spending in LAUSD are among the lowest in Los Angeles County and across the state. Yes, there is a massive bureaucracy downtown, but it is responsible for the education of nearly 700,000 children and for the employment of some 70,000 teachers and other staff. A new school district will have to hire a superintendent, administrative staff and create all of the support systems currently provided by the district to schools. In both new districts, we will want to hire the best people to do those jobs. That will require paying top dollar to attract them to our new districts. Other districts eager to keep high-quality administrators will also bid up the price. In the end, all the breakup would do is insure full employment for administrators. Is that what we really want to do? Many argue that LAUSD is too big to be efficient. It might be, but there is no similar-sized school district with which to compare LAUSD. Proponents of the breakup argue that research shows the efficient size of a school district to be around 40,000 students. If so, why did they propose two districts of between 80,000 and 100,000 students? Both would still be among the 30 largest districts of the more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, and both would be among the four or five largest in California. Moreover, the research on district size is flawed in that there are few districts of 40,000 or more students in the country. They are in a number of different states with vastly different school funding systems and disparate levels of funding. In short it is impossible to make such comparisons. If we don’t break up the district, what should we do? We need to focus on high standards for every child combined with an accountability system that holds every employee of the district responsible for student learning. Individual schools need the authority to make decisions about curriculum and resource allocation, and all staff need access to current research on student learning. They also need timely, high-quality data on student performance and resource use. With that power, knowledge and information, teachers, administrators and other district employees can be held accountable for student outcomes. In short, let’s focus on learning, not on breaking apart. Lawrence O. Picus is associate professor and director of the Center for Research in Education Finance at the USC Rossier School of Education.

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