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Larger school districts tend to veer 'off task'

By Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz

March 16, 2003

Talk to administrators, teachers and union officials in any of the nation's 10 largest school districts -- whether you choose New York and Los Angeles (first and second in size), or Las Vegas and Philadelphia (sixth and seventh). Ask whether class size should be reduced. They will answer, "Yes." Then ask if school size should be reduced. They'll most likely approve of that, too.

"It's no accident that almost every elite private high school in this country has about 400 kids," points out Tom Vander Ark, former Seattle schools superintendent and now executive director for education of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "When you get much bigger than that, all the teachers don't know all the kids. ... Teachers fall through the cracks; kids fall through the cracks. The factory model just doesn't work any more."

But then ask if school district size should be reduced.

"At this point you are bound to witness a pause from your subject brought on by the realization that he or she has been led down the garden path into a neat little trap," writes Mike Antonucci, director of the California-based education research firm the Education Intelligence Agency.

"While espousing the virtues of small schools with a community atmosphere, our public school system has monstrously large school districts, mainly in poor urban areas, which are home to the worst problems in education."

And of course, caught up as they are in the supposed "efficiencies of scale," the largest districts tend to house the largest schools -- Los Angeles Unified, alone, accounting for five of America's 15 largest campuses.

School teachers' and administrators' unions "don't control the size of school districts directly, but they do resist efforts to break up large ones," writes Peter Brimelow, financial journalist and senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, in his new book "The Worm in the Apple: How the Teachers Unions Are Destroying American Education" (HarperCollins, 2003).

"Why? Because it's a lot easier for union officials to organize, administer and oversee one local union of eight thousands teachers than to have 80 local unions with 100 teachers each," Mr. Brimelow explains.

Larger districts are handier for administrators, too, Mr. Brimelow points out. "The larger the district, the larger the bureaucracy and the higher the career ladder. The American government school system suffers from penalties of scale. Through the principle of bureaucratic bloat known as Parkinson's Law, the larger a school district gets, the more resources tend to get diverted to secondary or even nonessential activities."

Can that really be true? If it is true, that assertion could stand on its head the first and loudest objection raised to any suggestion that voters break up one or more of the nation's biggest school districts (including Clark County's): loss of the efficiencies of scale.

In Southern California, for example, Los Angeles Unified School Board President Caprice Young last month called for breaking up that district -- the nation's second largest and second fastest-growing -- into as many as 30 smaller districts. That proposal has met with emotional support from both parents and teachers fed up with red tape, "but sentiment won't be enough" to pull off such a down-sizing, warn education writers Erika Hayasaki and David Pierson of the Los Angeles Times.

Why? Because each district would need its own superintendent and staff, of course -- apparently multiplying the existing bureaucracy 30 times over.

"If what we're going to do is replicate 30 little Kremlins, it's not a good idea," warns Fernando Guerra, director for the Center of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University -- summing up the standard objection. "How the heck would you monitor those guys?"

Well, presumably each small-district superintendent would have his or her own local school board to answer to -- everyday citizens perhaps better able to change the direction of the much smaller bureaucracy of a smaller district in response to the needs and desires of local parents and taxpayers, just as a small number of people find it easier to handle a small sailboat than a huge ocean liner.

Indeed, accounts of the difficulty of changing the direction of today's huge mega-districts -- as of 2000 Los Angeles had an enrollment of 696,000; Dade County-Miami 353,000; Clark County-Las Vegas 204,000 (it's now over 255,000) -- are not hard to find. Los Angeles recently brought aboard former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to run the bureaucracy there. Mind you, this is a man who ran the entire government of the state of Colorado, a jurisdiction of 4.3 million souls. Yet Mr. Romer has commented on how his experience as chief of the national Democratic Party and even governor of an entire state left him unprepared for the intransigence of Los Angeles United's political wars.

"With seven powerful labor unions and hundreds of middle managers and school principals vying for resources," the L.A. Times reports, Mr. Romer arrived in town to find "the district is rife with schisms and political intrigues." Being superintendent "is a more difficult job by quite a ways," Mr. Romer told the Times last year. "I never knew politics till I got here."

The Los Angeles district actually managed to lose track of $228 million last year -- a mere 5 percent of its budget. "The (district) does not know how many employees it has working in what position at any given time, or how much they get paid," reported L&L Fuller Inc. in an official 1999 audit.

Yet the Los Angeles district's administrators have stubbornly resisted down-sizing. The last area to successfully split away from L.A. United was Torrance, in 1948. Last November, residents of Carson, Calif., defeated a proposal to form a separate district "after an anti-secession blitz by the teachers union," the Times reports. And a month later, the California state Board of Education voted 10-0 against a proposal to create a separate San Fernando Valley school district, dubbing it "unworkable."

'To get my guys'

The nation's new secretary of Education was plucked by President Bush from the management of the Houston School District -- eighth largest in the nation, just below Clark County -- where he attracted attention by installing more accountability, with some resultant improvement in test scores and academic achievement.

But in a visit to the Review-Journal offices last year, Secretary of Education Rod Paige (the first in his position even drawn from the ranks of front-line superintendents) shook his head as he recalled the extraordinary steps he found necessary to shift that huge district's course even slightly -- sounding for all the world like an officer who arrives in the pilot house of a huge ocean-going ship to find it steaming full speed toward a rocky shoal, with most of the steering gear out of commission and a defiant engine room crew apparently dedicated to resisting new orders.

The first thing Mr. Paige did on assuming his post in Houston was to "put the lawyers to work finding me every possible loophole" that would allow him to transfer or dismiss individual school principals, he recalled with a wry smile. Union contracts and other bureaucratic red tape are largely designed to deprive top administrators of just such leverage. But the power to reward or punish, "to get my guys in there" while removing the most recalcitrant resisters, was the only way to effect change, Mr. Paige recalled.

That may help explain why statistics show Mr. Brimelow to be correct -- larger districts actually dilute the concentration of staff and funds in the classrooms.

"In large schools, you actually have diseconomies of scale," Mr. Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation told Education Week magazine last October. "For instance, you have to have a registrar for students -- but not at a small school. And you have to have a number of counselors, an athletic director, security people, support staff."

Whereas at small schools, Mr. Vander Ark told the magazine, "it's possible for teachers to wear more than one hat, eliminating the need for some administrative positions."

And that effect often gets worse as districts increase in size.

Spending vs. Test Scores.  Click To Enlarge

About 52 percent of the employees of the average U.S. school district are classroom teachers. The rest are administrators, principals, librarians, aides, secretaries, bus drivers, etc. But in Philadelphia -- sixth largest district in the nation, almost precisely the size of the Clark County district -- only 48 percent of district employees are classroom teachers. In Detroit, where a one-week strike dominated national headlines a few years back, teachers make up only 40 percent of the school work force, according to the Digest of Education Statistics 1998, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Doug Thunder, Nevada's deputy state schools superintendent for administrative and fiscal services in Carson City, says 68 percent of Clark County's 21,829 employees work in the classroom. Of course, that includes a lot of "teacher aides" and other unlicensed personnel -- Mr. Thunder reports 12,967 licensed teachers actually teach in Clark County classrooms, constituting 59 percent of all employees.

If those numbers are accurate -- the school district itself reports having a somewhat larger base of 23,965 employees, not counting substitute teachers and temporaries -- Clark County appears to be doing quite well in this regard, at least by current national standards for public schools.

Almost as well as little Rhode Island, which is an interesting case in point.

With only 152,000 students statewide, the Ocean State could conceivably place all its schools in a single district -- such a district would rank only 12th in the nation, and would still be much smaller than Clark County's.

Yet Rhode Island instead chooses to divide its schools and students among 36 smaller, local districts.

Those who argue that breaking up large districts destroys "efficiencies of scale" would thus presumably predict that Rhode Islanders -- burdened with 36 administrative bureaucracies where they could easily make do with just the one -- must see a whopping percentage of their school budgets eaten up by bureaucratic costs.

But it just isn't so. In fact, "Rhode Island spends two-thirds of its education budget on instruction, has a teacher for every 14.2 students (one the lowest ratios in the nation), and over 63 percent of its education employees are classroom teachers -- the highest ratio in the nation," reports Mr. Antonucci.

In a report prepared Nov. 17, 1999, for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute, titled "Mission Creep: How Large School Districts Lose Sight of the Objective -- Student Learning," Mr. Antonucci found: "With class size reduction and school size reduction on the public's mind, educators are coming to the realization that bigger is not always better -- but school district size has not yet made it onto the education policy agenda."

'Mission creep'

It wasn't always thus. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, America had 119,001 school districts for 247,127 schools in 1937-38. But there was a steady decline through consolidation over the next 30 years until, in 1970-71, the nation found itself with a mere 17,995 school districts. At that point the decline slowed somewhat. But still, by 1996-97, there were only 14,841 school districts remaining.

A number of researchers over the past 10 years have found that large districts are increasingly "off task," in the language of education. A 1989 study from the magazine Education and Urban Society found, "As specialization in staff grows, program offerings expand, and administrative personnel increase, problems of coordination and control also increase. And in large systems, time and energy are more likely to be shifted away from core service activities."

A second study, presented by R.J. Oakerson at the 1992 annual meeting of the National Rural Studies Committee here in Las Vegas, discovered that "increasing school district size increases inputs to the production of education, but does not lead to higher output (student achievement)."

And, relevant to ongoing calls for smaller schools, a 1990 study for the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University concluded that, "School district size is the most significant factor in determining school size, with consolidation/reorganization plans generally resulting in larger schools. ... "

In other words, large school districts engage in "mission creep." In military circles, this term describes a common phenomenon in which forces are committed to achieve a limited objective, but then find themselves drawn into expanding both the size and the nature of the intervention, supposedly to support the original objective. Eventually, the "support" activities can lose any immediately apparent connection to the original goal.

"In public education, mission creep is a common occurrence," Mr. Antonucci finds. "Since children learn better when they are well-fed, the schools feed them. In the same way, schools provide transportation, counseling, child care, health services, security, etc., every one of which may be very worthwhile and important activities. The problem? Soon these 'support' functions require support of their own and before long the school district is no longer a school district, but a social services center. Education -- the original mission -- loses primacy. ... "

The average American public school district has six schools and approximately 3,600 students -- for an average school size of 600 students. But among the mega-districts, the Los Angeles Unified School District averages 1,039 students per school, Dade County (Miami) averages 1,059, and Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) averages 1,133, according to 1998 figures from the Digest of Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Even building new schools at a breakneck pace -- and with roughly 280 now in use -- Clark County also squeezes about 900 kids into each school.

All in the classroom?

According to Mr. Thunder, the Nevada deputy state schools superintendent: "For fiscal year 2000-2001, Clark County is showing $752 million for instructional expenditures, so that would be 58.9 percent, and the average for the year 2000-2001, nationally, was 58.83 percent."

But if Clark County still appears to get along with relatively few highly paid "administrators" in comparison to classroom teachers, some believe Superintendent Carlos Garcia has been working hard to make up for lost time.

"Go look at the new two-story building at Pecos and Flamingo," says one district insider. "When they did the (2001) reorganization, they hired a new assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Professional Development, and in the past year and a half they've hired so many new administrators to go into that building. ... And I swear to God, every administrator has an assistant administrator and an administrative assistant.

"Just for 'reading' alone they've got a reading director and an assistant director, they're got associates, they've got an administrative specialist, and then they have trainers." (That 27-person division, headed up by Christy Falba and Beverly Daly, is actually called "Literacy & Elementary Instructional Technology.")

"Just get a district phone book and look under 'Instruction' or 'Curriculum & Professional Development' and you'll see 'director,' 'director,' 'director,' director' ..." the source insisted.

Mary Stanley-Larsen, a spokeswoman for the district, says 139 people work in the building -- 18 of them in the "English Language Learners" program.

But meantime, the district's 81-page "Administrative Offices Telephone Directory" with its listings of some 1,400 administrative employees with telephones (no bus drivers, janitors, or classroom teachers, needless to say) does indeed make intriguing reading.

Leave aside for the moment the cost and efficacy of C.W. Hoffman's 14-member district legal office, nine of whom appear to actually be attorneys. Who knew that the 14-member school police administrative office at 818 Bridger Ave. retained an officer responsible solely for "evidence"; that 10 persons were required to maintain the school district presence on the Internet ("office of Internet-InterAct Operations"); or that 18 administrators are required just to oversee Melba Madrid-Parra's aforementioned English Language Learner Program (with two more presumably doing totally unrelated work for Lore Carillo-Carrera's "Dual Language Program")?

And about that "mission creep into social services" that Mr. Antonucci was talking about?

Eight administrators staff Myra Berkovits' "Title I Homeless Program," while 13 more staff Cynthia McCray's "Low Incidence Disabilities Department" -- six or seven of whom are identified as "Itinerant Specialists."

Someone surely knows what seven social workers and a secretary do in Assistant Director Bob Borders' "Wrap-Around Services" department, and how the four staffers in Judy Miller's "Child Find Project" are getting on with that particular task.

Yes, the Clark County district does seem to make do with only two administrators each in the Yvonne Atkinson-Gates Child Development Center on Tonopah Avenue, the Reynaldo Martinez Child Development Center on Harris Avenue, and the Cecile-Walnut Predevelopment Recreation Center on Cecile Avenue. But of course, that's in addition to the eight administrative specialists, case managers, early childhood social workers, etc., busily laboring away for Assistant Director Maureen Powers in the Early Childhood Program.

Just "reading, writing and 'rithmetic"?

Wiser heads also doubtless know what precisely is taught by the 10 "Behavior Mentor Teachers" divided among the District's five "Special Education Regional Teams," and how the 11 administrative staff members keep busy at Kevin Connolly's "Graphic Arts Center." But one begins to wonder just how much mischief folks can get up to with the district's motor vehicles, if the Transportation Department really finds need for the services of 15 "Transportation Investigators," while both a coordinator and a claims examiner are also required to staff the "Liability - Auto and General."

Five administrators work in the district's "Warranty Services" office. While presumably the responsibilities of Dusty Dickens' 13-member "Demographics, Zoning & Real Property Department" in no way overlap those of the six to eight additional staffers in Assistant Director Matthew LaCroix's "Real Property Management" office.

And indeed, just as my source predicted, in addition to the 12-member "Professional Development Department" under the "Student Support Services Division" ... and the 36 staff working under Deputy Superintendent Agustin Orci and directors Kathy Foster and Bill Hanlon in the "Instruction Unit" ... it turns out the separate "Curriculum & Professional Development Division" to which I was steered does constitute quite an interesting four pages of the district directory.

Among the 126 phone numbers listed for this division, we find an assistant superintendent, 11 directors, two assistant directors, 11 coordinators, and eight administrative specialists (one devoted to "Multicultural Education" and another to "Indian Education/Foreign Exchange") ... not to mention a "textbook adoption facilitator" and two "student success advocates" in the office of Diversity Education Services.

Meantime, it presumably just shows how out-of-touch some of us old-timers are that we'd blissfully assumed -- 2 + 2 still equaling 4, and the phonetic nature of the English alphabet remaining unchanged -- effective "curricula" for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic had surely been developed in this country decades ago, leaving no need for this particular wheel to be constantly reinvented right here in little Clark County, over and over again, world without end, employing something on the order of 100 highly paid experts, some with Ph.D.s, 200 days a year, on "curriculum development."

"They'll tell you it doesn't cost the district anything because it's all paid for by grants, and that may be true in the direct sense, but that's still money that's not going into the classroom," my source argues. Nor, of course, will the benefits and eventual pensions of all those (estimated) $70,000-to-$90,000 administrators be covered by those grants.

"I'm not the only one that's asked them how, in a legislative year when you're crying poor-mouth and saying we have no money, can they be hiring all these new administrators. Ask them how many new administrators they've hired in the past two years," the long-time Clark County administrator advises.

I did. Deputy Superintendent Walt Rulffes reports 148 new administrators in the past four years -- 19.6 percent growth.

Still, regardless of how worthwhile their work is -- and bringing us back to Square One -- the fact remains that only a really big district can even be tempted to fill whole office buildings with so many highly-paid employees who rarely encounter an actual schoolchild.

The annual allocations for Curriculum and Professional Development in places like little Esmeralda County can be as little as $1,500.

Size and quality

"As school systems across the country struggle with questions of testing, quality and accountability, they need to look at school district size as a variable," concludes Mr. Antonucci.

Indeed, when it comes to the current academic performance of the nation's largest school districts, the term "disaster" is hard to avoid.

In Pennsylvania, state Secretary of Education Charles B. Zogby signed a "declaration of distress" in December of 2001, allowing the state to take over the Philadelphia school district. The district thus became the largest ever to be taken over by a state government for utter financial and academic failure, paving the way for what could be the largest experiment yet in private, contracted management of tax-funded schools.

Why?

"Philadelphia is one of Pennsylvania's poorest performing school districts, with between 70 and 80 percent of its students scoring below proficient on the Commonwealth's PSSA test," wrote the Pennsylvania Senate Republican caucus in 2001. "The problems in the Philadelphia School District ... are made more extraordinary due to the size of the school district," the senators concluded.

In the nation's 15th largest district, "Hundreds of Metro Detroit schools risk losing state accreditation this year because more than three-quarters of their students flunked at least one state exam," the Detroit News reported on April 22, 2001. While the rate of Michigan school failure was about one-in-four statewide, "The News analysis showed that the Detroit Public Schools district has 121 schools at risk, or nearly half its buildings."

Here in Clark County, the Nevada Department of Education put 30 Clark County public schools on the state's low-performing list this month -- 12 percent of the district total, up from only four schools a year ago. Why? In the past, the district didn't have to count the scores of student who have trouble speaking English; now they do.

"We have work to do," said Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

Said Mr. Antonucci, "If large school districts are unable to refocus on their primary mission, the solution is obvious, if politically tricky: Break 'em up."

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.




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