L.A. Schools May Give Division Lesson

With falling test scores, high dropout rates, Los Angeles school system is facing overhaul; some voters want control closer to home

AFTER a quarter-century of debate, the breakup of the Los Angeles school system, the nation's second-largest, may finally be on the way.

Held up over the years by union opposition and talk of racism, the school system's splintering now seems inevitable with the approval last week of legislation that makes it easier for voters to petition for a breakup.

Los Angeles could thus become the nation's premier test case for determining whether a massive urban district - 640,000 students spread over 708 square miles - could be improved through division.

Proponents here say carving up the system will prompt educators to better respond to students' needs and give schools back to neighborhoods. Critics say it will only increase bureaucratic bloat.

Los Angeles's move symbolizes the dramatic steps being taken by cities across the country to try to improve schools in the face of sinking test scores and rising budget deficits.

In Chicago, the city has replaced the typical school bureaucracy with corporate-style management teams. In Cleveland, Ohio, the state has taken over, hoping it can improve the city's failing schools. In Hartford, Conn., and Baltimore, school boards have hired private companies who promise to do more with less.

Differently sized schools

Others may soon be following Los Angeles's proposed smaller-is-beautiful approach. The Texas legislature, for instance, passed a law in May allowing voters to bypass school boards and petition to "de-annex" from their city districts. Lawmakers pointed to studies showing that school systems serving from 5,000 to 12,000 students have higher test scores and lower dropout rates than larger districts.

In Florida, the legislature rejected a measure backed by a county in suburban Miami that would allow voters to break up the school district. Supporters say they will reintroduce the bill next year.

"This is an interesting time," says Tony Wagner, president of the Institute for Responsive Education at Boston University.

"People are rethinking the whole notion of what school districts are supposed to be," Mr. Wagner says. "A lot of people are thinking 'Do we need districts at all?'"

Los Angeles's breakup effort has more backers now than it has had since the 1970s. Breakup seems inevitable. Last week, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) signed a bill that dramatically lowers the number of petitioners needed to mandate a breakup. The governor is also expected to sign this week a companion bill that requires a racial and socioeconomic mix in the new districts.

Grass-roots support

Organizations from PTAs and Latino civil rights associations to teachers unions and grass-roots groups formed 20 years ago when breakup talk first began have come out of the woodwork to make clear their vision of reduced districts. The question, says one activist from the suburban San Fernando Valley, long the impetus behind the breakup movement, is not will a breakup occur, but when it does, what do I want.

Even those working within the district say they do not oppose smaller districts in theory. "We don't have a knee-jerk reaction to breakup. We want to wait and see what plans are proposed," says Eleanor Leo, the senior legislative analyst for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

"But frankly, I haven't seen any plan designed to improve student achievement, and that should be the top priority," she says.

California's schools have dropped from among the best in the nation in terms of student test scores to 42nd over the past two decades. And individual districts have endured major funding cutbacks ever since the state's antitax Proposition 13 was enacted in 1978. The law prohibits districts from raising money for schools; all budgets are now dictated by the state. As a result, Los Angeles teachers have been forced to take pay cuts, classroom sizes have mushroomed, and many school buildings lie in disrepair. The dropout rate for LAUSD is 40 percent.

Issues left unresolved

Yet the school district "vigorously opposed" the last district reorganization plan, which failed two years ago. That one, Ms. Leo says, did not address such issues as what to do with overflow students, currently bused from one part of the city to another. They couldn't be shifted across district lines. And how would teachers' salaries be addressed? They are paid on a seniority basis, so some districts may have more expensive teachers than others.

Across the country, educators disagree over how large a role the size of a district - or school or classroom - plays in effective teaching.

"While we've heard a lot of talk that small is better, I don't know that there's any definitive research to back that up," says Chris Pipho, spokesman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

More important to predicting student success, Mr. Pipho says, is a high level of education in parents, a comfortable economic situation in the home, and households headed by two, caring parents. "Those factors have more to say about student achievement than the size of the school district," he says.

But dismantling Los Angeles's huge school district could be positive for the community if it shakes up entrenched ways of thinking, Pipho says.

Beyond cynicism

And that's exactly why the San Fernando Valley's Ms. Mansfield is pushing for smaller districts rather than other kinds of reform.

"People in L.A. are cynical of promised reforms," she says, "because the history has been that it's not ever the kind of change that becomes institutionalized."

"In the last 20 years, we've gone through a couple of those cycles," Mansfield says. "There is a move to decentralize and then it shifts back ... and we're back at Square 1.

"We're anxious to see some change that we can depend on and that can't be taken away."

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