Loco control

Defeat often begets a scapegoat.  In the wake of the twice-short Colorado application to R2T, this has now solidified: the judges were “perplexed by local control” which led to a lack of objectivity. This is a familiar refrain — them pointy-headed Eastern elites jest don’t git the way things work out West, what wid our frontier sensibilities ‘n all.  So local control is the Western value we refuse to sacrifice to appease these high-fallutin fiscal brutes.

Except I think it would be prudent to entertain, at least briefly, one small possibility:

Um… What if they are right?

Colorado has 178 independent school districts, and the differences in size are staggering.  Using CDE data (Fall 2008), let’s look closer at these 178 districts that contain over 800,000 students:

  • The average district has 4,560 students.  But because there are a few large districts and a lot of small ones, a better metric is median district size, which is just 603 students.
  • The largest district has over 85,885 students, the smallest has just 54.
  • 106 (60 percent) of districts have fewer than 1,000 students. 79 districts (44 percent) have fewer than 500 students.
  • The largest 10 districts combined house 56 percent of total students.  The smallest 100 districts combined house 4 percent.

Now, say what you want about Eastern elitism and impenetrable Western values, but these numbers show a control system that is loco, not local. When the median school district contains just 600 students — the same size as many urban schools, it’s not local — it’s microscopic. We are, after all, the United States, not Cities, nor Towns.  But for school districts, we somehow ended up with micro control — the Districts of Individual Buildings (and not very large ones at that). Is it really so wrong to dock points in a competitive competition for this system?

The most lucid discussion on R2t and local control was from Robert Reichardt who makes several excellent points and highlights a central contradiction. Reichardt writes that Colorado “can’t draw that straight line of authority from the Colorado Department of Education to classrooms” and this bumps up against the pervasive belief that ”top-down command and control is the way for states to get things done in school system.” This, in turn, discriminates against Colorado’s local control system which is a “tight-accountability, loose-compliance model.”

But I don’t buy it: R2T was geared to move many districts away from command and control systems, and favored “tight-loose” models (for example, charter school expansion). Moreover, Colorado is clearly a national leader with the Innovation Schools Act which provides school-level autonomy within a broader system of district accountability.  So the conventional defense — that it is the reviewers judgment, not our system which is at fault — rings hollow.

There are, of course, plenty of ways to have a “tight-loose” system, but when a super-majority of 60 percent of  school districts have 1,000 students or fewer and combine for fewer than 5 percent of Colorado’s student population, I think it fails a basic logic test, and I don’t need to blame a complicated judging system. That two of five judges took off significant points for this actually makes sense to me.  Colorado’s single largest school district has more students than the combined population of the 136 smallest districts.  So forget the technical arguments for a minute, and let’s admit that our district arrangement is nuts.

Now I’m expecting (and encourage) some worthwhile discussion here, and I am certainly no fan of large school bureaucracies, but I have yet to encounter a single person who, given the choice, would set up Colorado’s system of local districts in the same way.

Yes, local control has somehow become a given in Colorado, and any change seems off the table of discussion  – not because it has merit, but simply due to the same old education demon of politics. Maybe in the wake of the R2T decision we should take a hard look at what the Western value of local control could mean, instead of what it is. Because schools districts of 600 students it ain’t.

And Colorado already has an interesting model – the Charter School Institute (CSI) which is not counted among the traditional 178 districts, but governs 19 schools and 5,728 students in various regions across the State.  CSI has a different organizing factor: It is the district for numerous charter schools, regardless of location. As a district, it groups its schools by their governance structure (charter), not by location.

Because the idea that geography is the primary defining characteristic of any organization has been in decline for almost 15 years, yet it remains the single way we define school districts.  What would happen if we instead, like CSI, organized school districts around something other than geography?  Could we not have a single governing body for the 79 school jurisdictions with 500 students or fewer (which would comprise a total of 19,000 students)?  Could we not have one for schools receiving increased autonomy under the Innovation Schools Act (which might even encourage more to do so)?

For many of the 41 middle-sized districts with between 1,000 and 5,000 students, should we consider school districts that encompass factors other than geography — whether it is instructional emphasis, grade levels, or something else?  This would not be mandated — schools could have the choice of belonging to their geographic district, or finding a district model that would provide better services and support.

For my guess is that many of those 79 jurisdictions with 500 or fewer students actually have a lot in common, and might benefit from not creating 79 versions of many similar things.  In fact, I bet most of the smaller districts have more in common than many of the schools clustered within larger districts (for example, what does the selective-admissions, 10 percent FRL, Denver School of the Arts high school have in common with open-enrollment, 95 percent FRL Cheltenham Elementary?).

Perhaps the R2T decision offers one of those moments where we can look at a legacy system with new eyes. If we were to preserve the idea of a “tight-loose” system, could we have a more sensible method of local (not micro) control districts structured around something other than geography is one thought.  Any others?

8/31: Paul Teske’s posting from almost two years ago deserves more prominent placement than his comment below. It’s a good read, and one wonders why this obvious issue was somewhat glossed over during R2T.

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