Liberating neighborhood schools through school district separation

By Marc Joffe
June 14, 2017

Large school districts are often less responsive to the needs of students and the hopes of parents than smaller districts. Public educational behemoths – such as Los Angeles Unified – are more likely to fall under the influence of well-organized interest groups such as teachers’ unions. By breaking up large districts into smaller ones, parents can achieve greater accountability. Although California makes school district secessions difficult, groups in Malibu and Walnut Creek are making impressive strides.

In a 2015 commentary, former State Board of Education Carl Cohn, called for a breakup of LA Unified (LAUSD). Cohn argued that, “In addition to being nimble and flexible, smaller school districts are physically closer to the parents they serve, and can initiate change strategies in a much more timely fashion.” He reached this conclusion while working as a special monitor – overseeing LAUSD’s effort to implement court-ordered reforms. LAUSD had been placed under court oversight in 1996 for “systematic noncompliance” with special-education law. Two decades later, the district had yet to achieve full compliance: the latest independent monitoring report concluded that LA Unified “shows a lack of urgency in making services, programs, and activities, programs accessible at schools. It shows little interest in disengagement from the [Modified Consent Decree] and seems to be driven by other priorities and agendas.”

The idea of breaking LAUSD into more manageable chunks has a long history. In 1944, Evelyn Carr, a mother of three, started a campaign to separate schools in Torrance from the district. Carr believed that LAUSD treated Torrance as a poor stepchild, denying it better teachers and improved facilities, despite the property taxes it contributed and state aid it attracted. She helped organize the Torrance Parents Association, which lobbied for the creation of a city school district. In March 1947, Torrance voters overwhelmingly ratified the separation initiative, and Torrance Unified School District was fully operational the following year.

A half century later, Carolyn Harris, a grandmother in nearby Carson, led a campaign to detach that city’s schools from LAUSD. Working with a former mayor, she placed a secession initiative on the city’s November 2001 ballot. But her campaign was swamped by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which spent more than $125,000 (25 times the amount spent by secession proponents) to defeat the measure. According to the LA Daily News, UTLA mobilized its members, along with police and other local unions, to oppose the initiative because a new Carson district would not have been bound by the union’s contract with LAUSD, imperiling salaries and benefits.

Also, in 2001, the State Board of Education rejected a bid to carve out two 100,000-student school districts in the San Fernando Valley. At the time LAUSD had 732,000 students – a number that has subsequently declined as parents have switched their children to charters, had fewer kids or moved away.

While opponents of school district secession often invoke charges of racism, it is worth noting that Carson was (and still is) a majority-minority city. In the 2000 Census, the city was 35% Latino and 25% African American.

In recent years, LA school reform advocates have shifted their attention to encouraging the growth of charter schools. Having now won a pro-charter majority of LAUSD’s board, reformers can look forward to liberating more kids from the grip of unresponsive educational bureaucracies.

Malibu

Although secession is no longer an issue in LAUSD, it is moving forward in two other California districts. The Santa Monica–Malibu Unified School Districts covers two cities that are adjacent to LAUSD but not adjacent to one another. Malibu and Santa Monica are separated by the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, but share a single school district.

The results have not been good for Malibu, the smaller of the two cities, which has only one representative on the seven-member board. As a result, Malibu parents are often frustrated. In one case, the SMMUSD school board prohibited the local PTA from raising money for Malibu schools, ruling that any funds would have to be shared across the district. The school board also opposed a parent-led effort to convert Point Dume Elementary in Malibu to a charter school.

In 2013, parents learned that Malibu High School contained excessive levels of PCBs – a common building material used in the mid-20th Century now known to be hazardous. Rather than immediately remediate the health hazard, the district paid consultants and lawyers $13 million in an attempt to minimize concerns and defend against litigation from concerned parents. Although the litigation is now over and the school is being renovated, the conflict shows what can happen when parents in a remote part of a larger school district are underrepresented.

In 2010, Malibu parents formed AMPS – Advocates for Malibu Public Schools – to advocate for a separate school district. The city council endorsed AMPS view in September 2015, petitioning the County Board of Education for district separation. Negotiations are now under way between SMMUSD representatives and Malibu residents. The discussions – which are summarized on SMMUSD’s web site – focus mainly on financial matters: Santa Monica members are concerned that a split will reduce their per student funding and are seeking subsidies from the prospective Malibu district.

Northgate (Walnut Creek)

Mount Diablo Unified School District in Central Contra Costa County covers 150 square miles across seven cities and three unincorporated areas. When the district was formed in 1948, these communities were sparsely populated, but they subsequently experienced rapid growth as commuting options to San Francisco improved. The district’s largest city, Concord, had less than 7000 residents in the 1950 Census; now it has more than 128,000.

As a result, the district has become difficult to manage and is often unresponsive to parents. One of the district’s middle schools Is among the worst in the state. According to Oak Grove Middle School’s most recent School Accountability Report Card, only 19% of its students meet state standards for English and Literacy; only 7% meet state standards for Math. Almost 12% of students were suspended at some point during the 2015-2016 academic year. This is especially shocking for a school in a middle income community.

Parents and education reform activists in the eastern section of Walnut Creek (called Northgate) have formed a group to advocate for the creation of a neighborhood school district. The group, Northgate CAPS – Community Advocacy for or Public Schools – proposes to form a new Northgate Unified School District from the area’s five schools. Late last year, the group circulated a petition requesting a vote on district separation. They ultimately collected 6700 signatures – well above the 25% of registered voters required to put a separation measure on the local ballot

More recently. members researched and wrote a detailed report explaining the need for separation. The report traces the recent decline in the quality of Northgate schools on statewide measures. For example, Northgate High School declined from the “9” range in 1999 to the “2” range in 2013, meaning that over 14 years in went from being among the top 20% of schools with similar demographics to being in the bottom 30%. The report also explains how the proposed district separation conforms to the Nine Criteria the state has established for evaluating school district reorganizations.

In April, the Walnut Creek City Council discussed the Northgate CAPS proposal. The school district and teachers’ union expressed strong opposition (the union even gave one council member a free ticket to its annual awards dinner). But the Council ultimately sided with local parents, endorsing Northgate CAPS’ efforts to put a school separation initiative on the local ballot.

The group’s next step is a hearing at the Contra Costa County Board of Education. One risk is that the County Board will order a vote throughout the entire Mount Diablo District – rather than just in the area to be served by the new district. If that’s the case, local support for the initiative could be overwhelmed by union-driven votes in other cities.

Conclusion

The oldest form of school choice is moving to a better school district. When districts are small, the threat of parent relocation and the consequent loss of state funds provides a strong incentive for them to provide good schools. When parents are trapped in larger districts, the costs of moving – in terms of commute times and separation from extended family and friends – become greater. School district management can afford to become less accountable to parents and their children, yielding instead to unions and other organized interests.  By dividing school districts into more manageable chunks, local parents and activists can increase accountability, choice, and, most importantly, learning outcomes for neighborhood children.

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