‘Deconstruct’ APS? Yes, Please

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Dan Lewis, president of the Albuquerque City Council, offers some good and bad ideas today in an op-ed in the Duke City’s daily. But one proposal is stellar: “The Albuquerque Public School District has been plagued by scandal and failing outcomes for too long. Parents, teachers, and community advocates for our children have found that it is near impossible to hold district bureaucrats accountable. Now is the time to deconstruct this large unaccountable school district into multiple smaller districts. City leaders can stand up for our students and teachers by helping bring about the best kind of oversight — local accountability.”

Government education in America has a myriad of problems. But bigness is one of the biggest. A 2006 paper by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that in “the 50 years between 1930 and 1980, the number of school districts in the United States declined from almost 120,000 to 15,000 (a number that remains unchanged from 1980 through the present). During approximately the same period, the number of schools fell in the U.S. from over 225,000 to less than 100,000. Despite a 70 percent increase in the nation’s population, the number of school districts decreased by 87 percent and the number of schools decreased by 69 percent.”

What’s all that consolidation achieved? Not much — student-proficiency levels are lousy, and educrats’ labor productivity has been negative.

So Lewis’s idea deserves a serious discussion. But why stop at deconstructing APS? Statewide, school districts suffer from another problem: Local taxpayers don’t have enough “skin in the game.” More than two-thirds of K-12 government education in New Mexico is funded from state revenues. Only Idaho, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Vermont have larger shares.

Education economist Caroline Hoxby has found that “both students and taxpayers are better off under locally based systems of school funding and school control.” Shifting funding away from state sources, and toward property taxes and local GRTs, would be another way to foster the local accountability Lewis seeks.

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7 Replies to “‘Deconstruct’ APS? Yes, Please”

  1. Breaking up APS into several districts is a good move, as is moving school board elections to state and national election days. However, local control in my home state of Illinois has had mixed results.

    There’s such a thing as too small: The elementary school district in my suburb had only five schools, but still needed a superintendent and a full support staff. And there was a separate high school district.

    At one point the Chicago public schools tried to decentralize by appointing neighborhood school councils. All that accomplished was to fire the white principals and replace them with African-Americans.

    Local control offers maximum school choice because communities with good schools attract residents. School quality probably was a major factor in population shifts from cities to suburbs.

    But local funding means taxes will be sky-high unless your community has a shopping center or industrial park. Lack of local funding also may accelerate a cycle of poverty in poor communities.

    Another approach that has worked in some cities is dissolving the school board and placing the schools under the mayor — who is elected by more voters than any school board.

  2. My quick first take, I’m on my way to an appointment.

    The number of school districts shrunk because the size of cities increased and those smaller districts were absorbed into the larger one.

    The size of schools increased because business people and other outsiders who knew nothing about education (always the folks who know the most about reforming education, right?) saw larger schools as cheaper to run, because of economies of scale, which may be a good idea financially but in some cases not beneficial to students or teachers. Funny, and sad, how the societal descendants of the people who caused the problem have no knowledge of that little artifact of history and now have no sense of responsibility for the problems they caused.

    Property taxes do fund schools’ capital needs. Check your property tax receipt and remember school bond elections.

    Please tell me that this phrase, “educrats’ labor productivity,” is not slamming teachers. If it is, comparing highly educated teachers to someone’s performance on an assembly line is ignorant at best and demeaning at worst.

    Folks who really understand education have studied large schools and small schools and found that student achievement is unaffected, but, and that’s a large “but,” the teacher workload (does anybody care about that?) increases in small schools because teachers have to teach more subjects requiring even more time spent preparing than usual. Does anyone care about teacher moral?

  3. And, oh yes, let’s give control of education to mayors. New Mexico gave control of education to the governor (the “mayor” of the state) and look at the disaster that has created!

    1. Ken, I tend to agree with you that there is no ideal government solution to our education problem. All of them are a distant second best to a real choice driven “marketplace” for education. I’d like to see APS split just to “shake things up,” but that is hardly a solution. Even if we don’t wind up in my school choice fantasy-land, something must be done to address the funding and decision-making processes we have in New Mexico. I’d prefer local control, but that has already been deemed “unfair.”

  4. Fewer, much larger schools. A major contributor to sprawl, likely more significant than big box stores.
    Yet for many years we have known that smaller schools have more beneficial impact on childhood education than small class size – 4-600 elementary, 6-800 middle, fewer than 1,000 in high schools.
    APS even has had Planners look at this whole issue, but they lose to funding hacks and union flacks
    How can the effectiveness of teachers be better when the student outcome is worse?
    A school never should be built with consideration of sports league participation; that is unconscionable.

  5. Is it too big or is it too small? The correct answer is to ask if it is effective. Local control ( a school district) means that the school board would be closest to the people being served. That should mean that shaping the curriculum would result in better outcomes. If that doesn’t happen, the fault lies in the people serving on the school board not in the size. Bad is bad for a reason that is easier to correct when accountability is local. Schools are populations that are as diverse as the cities and towns they serve. However, they all have the same components. They all serve children, parents and teachers. What I have observed is that those three components are left out of the decision making. Prior to the involvement of state and federal identities, the USA education was very successful. You won’t ever be a 100 percent but can we be better than we are ? Yes, starting with the next school board election.

  6. Local control by a school board is sound in principle but often ineffective in practice. Low voter turnout for school board elections means members are elected by a relative handful of voters. The result often is a weak board that is unrepresentative of the community — four of the seven APS board members are career educators — and easily influenced by educational bureaucrats and the teachers’ union.

    Moving school elections to coincide with state and municipal elections will help. We also need conflict-of-interest standards to increase school board diversity and shift control from educators to parents and community members.

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