Wall Street Journal Op-Ed: America’s School Districts Are Too Big

Communities feel they’ve lost the ability to influence bloated bureaucracies. Time to break them up.

By Andy Smarick

Some U.S. school districts have become so large and unwieldy that parents and taxpayers feel they have no ability to influence them. To restore local, democratic control, it’s time to break up those big districts.

Public schooling was largely decentralized a century ago. A movement to standardize and professionalize K-12 education began in the Progressive Era. Consolidation may have accomplished some of its goals, but America’s largest districts today tend to be among the lowest-performing. For the most part, they are located in big cities and their ring suburbs. The nation’s three largest districts serve the nation’s three largest cities: New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Many large districts also spend vast sums per student: San Francisco and Atlanta spend more than $17,000 a pupil; Washington spends more than $22,000; Boston more than $25,000; and New York more than $28,000.

Breaking these behemoths into smaller districts won’t resolve any particular policy argument by itself. Over the past several years, small and large districts have debated the same issues. Board meetings have run hot, voter turnout has been high, school-board seats have been contested, teacher retirements have increased, and recall efforts have been mounted. But while threats against public officials are intolerable, vigorous public debate among parents and community members over the future of their local public institutions defines civic engagement—and democracy. Civic virtue in a pluralistic, democratic republic doesn’t require only participation; it also requires acceptance of lawful democratic decisions.

A district-deconsolidation movement wouldn’t touch the vast majority of districts, and it wouldn’t be a federal initiative. State governments would concentrate on the largest 1% of districts, roughly those with more than 40,000 students. A state could begin by passing a law requiring those districts to be deconsolidated by a future date—say, within five years. The resulting districts would be capped at an enrollment of 10,000 students. If the state decided a district couldn’t objectively deconsolidate itself, a temporary commission could do the work or state education officials could take charge.

Since the ultimate goal of this reform is to create small, democratic self-governing education bodies, each new district would need to have its own board and administration. Beyond that, though, different states—even different regions within a state—could approach deconsolidation differently.

Whatever a state decides, it should avoid setting arrangements in stone. Flexibility is important. Regardless of its flaws, a large, longstanding district will have valuable programs and customs suited to its community. No matter how well-planned, bold reforms will be unsettling, potentially unwinding some successful practices and causing new problems. In the first few years, the state and its new districts may discover more-sensible arrangements related to district composition, shared services, enrollment systems, facilities management, transportation, school choice and more.

Large districts and those who benefit from them will object. Running a system with a billion-dollar budget confers prestige. Those in charge of such districts wield political power that will be hard to relinquish. Private providers of goods and services (such as books, professional development and school meals) prize the big contracts they score with massive districts. Unions and other professional associations have more power when they can organize on the scale of a huge district. They will argue that breaking up districts would lead to inefficiencies and duplication of services. Why, they will ask, should we have five school boards, five central offices, and five superintendents, when we can have one of each?

Whether such large districts are actually more efficient remains debatable. But advocates of deconsolidation should be clear that there is more to public-school governance than efficiency. After all, separation of powers, bicameralism, federalism, democracy and individual rights can be considered inefficient.

Public schools are valuable not only because they teach young people reading or job skills but because they enable communities to pass their values on to the next generation. We shouldn’t assess a school system based solely on math scores or graduation rates per dollar spent. We should also ask whether local citizens and parents feel as though the schools are theirs: Do the schools reflect their priorities and give them a way to engage in key decisions?

Parental and community control of public schools makes sense to most Americans, but K-12 policy has long been guided by principles like efficiency, accountability, college-readiness, fairness and transparency. All these are important. But we seem to have lost our commitment to schools as community-led institutions. Seldom does one hear that public-school reform should make a priority of the will of local citizens, even though in many places that principle is alive and well in practice. In big cities and the areas surrounding them—places where the need for strong, responsive, community-oriented schools is often most acute—it’s time to re-establish the principle of local, democratic control.

Mr. Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This op-ed is adapted from City Journal’s autumn issue.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

National Review: School Choice Is Poised for Another Victory in Texas


Past efforts at expanding educational freedom have fallen short in the Lone Star State. Here’s why this legislative session might be different.

Texas policy-makers have repeatedly tried and failed to expand school choice within their state, but this upcoming legislative session will be different.

In the past, the key obstacle to passing choice legislation has been school superintendents in mostly rural areas, who fear that making it easier for Texans to send their children to private schools would shrink public-school enrollment, reducing school districts’ funding and faculty numbers. These local superintendents often head the largest employer in their districts, giving them lots of clout with elected officials. Given the lack of organization on the other side of the issue, many rural state representatives have thus been reluctant to back the expansion of school choice, causing bills to fall just short year after year.

But school choice has much better prospects in the upcoming legislative session, for two reasons.

First, advocacy organizations have finally managed to turn support of their cause into a litmus test for Republican candidates. They are holding elected Republicans accountable for failing to support the empowerment of parents, and for abandoning the position endorsed by the party’s own platform. These advocates have recruited and funded primary challenges to Republican legislators who block school choice, defeating many incumbents in contests across the country. The prospect of a serious primary challenge has served as a check on the influence of rural school superintendents.

Second, parents in the outer suburbs and rural areas are increasingly noticing the disconnect between the values they wish to teach their children and what is being promoted in their schools.

The schools in small towns in Texas used to be the natural extension of the families in those communities. But increasingly, the federal government dictates to all public schools what pronouns people should be called, what bathrooms they must use, and on what sports teams they may play. Small-town Texans have seen these “woke” changes in policy and worry that their local public schools no longer really belong to them.

Additionally, more and more public-school administrators and teachers — even in rural Texas — are adopting the posture that they know better than parents what values children should be taught. As a result, families are starting to demand more school choice to find better private options if their public schools are going to push values antithetical to those they are trying to convey to their own children.

Public-school indoctrination that pushes woke values onto children against their parents’ wishes is not confined to big cities on the coasts. It has made its way into small-town Texas.

In Canutillo ISD outside of El Paso, a district with a little more than 6,000 students, a book containing sexually explicit images and language, Gender Queer, was returned to school-library book shelves after an eleven-person committee containing only three parents was charged with reviewing its appropriateness following parental complaints. Some parents might be satisfied with that outcome, but others are left frustrated and wondering why the school chose to spend scarce library resources on what they consider to be pornography. Those disgruntled parents want alternative school options.

In the Austin suburb of Georgetown, the local school district posted videos on its website urging monthly “equity” training and declaring that “only when we equip ourselves to see the role of implicit bias, systemic racism, structural racialization, and poverty play, and perpetuating achievement gaps . . . will we be able to create impactful strategies that address the root causes of inequitable learning outcomes in our system.” This focus on systemic racism and equity may resonate with some parents, but others view it as divisive and believe that it promotes reverse discrimination. Again, parents who find their local public schools out of sync with their values are organizing to demand more choice in their children’s educations.

As Texan parents are mobilizing to demand more school choice and advocacy organizations are ramping up their efforts to recruit and fund primary challenges in rural districts, the grip of rural school-district superintendents on their state representatives is loosening and the door to empowering parents is opening. Arizona and West Virginia have given the movement significant victories by adopting universal Education Savings Accounts to fund school choice. Now, Texas is poised to build on that momentum.

Source: National Review

WSJ: The School-Choice Election Wave

by Corey DeAngelis

Even Democrats are adapting to new political realities.

There may not have been a red wave or a blue wave, but there was a nationwide school-choice wave.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the biggest victory of the night for parents. In 2018 William Mattox of the James Madison Institute argued in these pages that “unexpected support from minority women,” whom he dubbed “school-choice moms,” accounted for his narrow victory that year. On Tuesday Mr. DeSantis won by more than 19 points overall and by 11 points in Miami-Dade, a county that favored Joe Biden by 7 points in 2020.

About three-fourths of Miami-Dade students are enrolled in choice programs, but Democrat Charlie Crist foolishly went all in for the public-school monopoly and picked the president of Miami’s United Teachers of Dade as his running mate.

Mr. DeSantis outperformed Mr. Crist by 13 points with Latino voters, according to exit polls (Mr. Biden won the Florida Latino vote by 7 in 2020), and 38% of students using the state’s largest private-school choice program are Hispanic. All six school-board candidates endorsed by Mr. DeSantis won their runoffs Tuesday. In all, 24 of 30 candidates he endorsed won this year.

Florida wasn’t the only bright spot. As this is written, 76% of candidates supported by my organization appear to have won. Govs. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Bill Lee of Tennessee and Greg Abbott of Texas all blew out their opponents after making school choice a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Mr. Stitt faced a barrage of attacks from dark-money groups for his support for school choice, yet he won by nearly 14 points—a margin larger than his 2018 win. As the Oklahoman newspaper noted, his Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, “made opposition to vouchers a central part of her campaign, claiming it would be a ‘rural school killer.’ ” Ryan Walters, elected Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction by more than 13 points, said on election night that “we are going to do more than any other state in the country to empower parents.”

Unlike Mr. Crist, some Democrats learned something from Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in Virginia. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois both endorsed private-school choice less than two months before the election and came out victorious. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York also won after she publicly supported—for the first time—eliminating the cap on New York City charter schools.

Skeptics have noted in these pages that these Democrats flipped on school choice for political expediency. Does it matter? If candidates for governor who were already up in the polls felt compelled to switch their stances on school choice right before the election, that’s good news regardless of their motives, and voters should hold them to account for their new positions.

After Tuesday night, it’s clear that for both parties, it is now becoming politically profitable to support education freedom. That’s because parents have woken up. For far too long in K-12 education, the only groups that commanded politicians’ attention were unions representing the employees in the system. Now the kids have a union of their own: their parents.

Mr. DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children. Source: Wall Street Journal

Educational Choice as a Life or Death Matter

The greatest moral urgency in K12 education today is the public health catastrophe of adolescence. While here I will focus on the shocking negative outcomes of our current system, the real goal is to shift to an educational system that will reliably produce confident, capable, resilient young people who can succeed in the 21st century economy.

The solution to both the need to address the public health catastrophe as well as to accelerate social mobility and purpose-driven lives is to allow parents and students to seek more personalized and humane educational environments in which teens flourish. Arizona’s recent universal Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) provide parents with the greatest range of such choices.

Read the full article from Michael Strong here.

Abbott and O’Rourke Clash on School Choice

As the gubernatorial election heats up, school choice continues to be a hot-topic issue among voters.

As the gubernatorial race heads into the final stretch and the Texas GOP has made school choice a legislative priority, Texas voters have made it clear that they support parental rights in education.

According to a September poll from Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, 60 percent of Texas voters support school choice, while only 28 percent were opposed.

The school choice system would allow parents to be directly involved in their children’s education and allow them to receive state funding to help enroll their children in the schools they believe best fit their needs.

Recently passed legislation in Arizona, for example, allows families to receive up to $7,000 per child.

Read the full article from Texas Scorecard here.

North Texas School District Promotes LGBT Group Offering ‘Queer Sex Ed’ Lessons

“We intend to teach queer youth sex ed and give them the tools to go out into the world and educate others and advocate for themselves.”

As school districts across the state come under fire for indoctrinating students with transgender theory and divisive racial policies, Lewisville Independent School District, located near Dallas, is promoting “Queer Sex Ed” to children.

Last week Libs of TikTok—a Twitter account that routinely exposes the sexualization and indoctrination of children—shared screenshots from Lewisville ISD’s Counseling Services page, which included links to LGBT organizations PFLAG and Youth First Texas.

Although the school district removed direct links to these sites, they still list both organizations as resources for “LGBTQ” students.

Youth First Texas, an offshoot of Resource Center Dallas, is “one of the only LGBTQIA+-focused programs in North Texas that addresses the challenges LGBTQIA+ teens face at home, school and in the community.” The group offers a weekly Queer Identity Night where children ages 12 to 18 meet with “transgender adult mentors.”

Read the full article from Texas Scorecard