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When districts break up

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A few weeks back I stumbled on an unusual proposal by the Wisconsin teachers’ union (WEAC) to deconsolidate, or break up, Milwaukee’s public schools.

It appears that deconsolidation’s coming back in vogue as a "when-all-else-fails" strategy for district reform.

After a cursory scan I found a handful of instances of proposed legislation to deconsolidate large urban school districts in the past two decades including:

What caught my attention with Milwaukee was that this time it was the statewide teacher’s union that was fed up with the litany of reforms and turned to deconsolidation as a opportunity for change.

My first reaction to the article was, “I wonder if deconsolidation would work in Philadelphia?”

As someone who’s lived here just shy of a dozen years, I didn’t realize that we’ve already tried it. But even after pouring over the handful of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Education Week archive about Philadelphia’s history of deconsolidation and decentralization, I’m still torn over whether it has any promise for Philadelphia, or if it might offer any lessons for our current style of school reform.

The main arguments in favor of deconsolidation focus on:

  • parent and community members having more access to district leaders,
  • increased responsiveness to concerns, and
  • savings from less central office staff.

Arguments against deconsolidation include concerns about:

  • potential intensification of inequality across most cities,
  • the loss of the economies of scale provided by a large unified district,
  • new fiefdoms and opportunities for patronage with elected officials,
  • the fracturing of teachers unions, and
  • a smaller tax base to support comprehensive services.

In a perfect world, where politicians aren’t so determined to put their hands in the cookie jar, deconsolidation might be an idea worth considering. But the more likely reality, at least in Philadelphia, is that deconsolidation would merely allow for people further down the ladder to get to the cookies.

Philadelphia has a history of both administrative decentralization as well as a few unsuccessful attempts of the more radical deconsolidation.

One of the city's most ambitious efforts at district decentralization occurred in 1995 when David Hornbeck instituted Children Achieving—an ambitious plan that organized the District into 22 clusters each made up of a comprehensive high school with a feeder elementary and middle schools. Each cluster, comprised of about 8 to 15 schools, was administered by a cluster leader and a full-time staff. Local school councils of parents and community members were created to provide feedback and oversight.

Early district deconsolidation efforts in Philadelphia began during the same time period, when in 1997 then state Sen. Vincent Fumo proposed a plan to break up the District into an undetermined number of smaller districts, each with its own elected school board and taxing authority. That same year state Rep. Dwight Evans introduced a similar proposal to create local school councils for each school, arming them with hiring power over principals and authority to approve the budget.

Nearly a year later, a statewide panel, the Legislative Commission on Restructuring Pennsylvania's Urban Schools, incorporated Fumo’s ideas into its proposal to deconsolidate the District’s 22 clusters into 22 legally independent school districts, each with its own elected school board. Of course, the proposal was never accepted and today we have a single unified district.

What does all of this mean for Philadelphia today?

From where I stand there are a number of philosophical, moral, and logistical challenges that arise when thinking about deconsolidation in our context:

  • Would there be enough interest to change the city’s charter to break up the school district? Not everyone in the city has school-aged children or sees the connection between the quality of our schools and the vitality of the city. 
  • In the absence of a citywide central office, could the new districts work together to share transportation, purchasing, and other services?
  • It would be a stretch to get the governor to support deconsolidation because it would necessitate the dissolution of the SRC. On the other hand a deconsolidated district might be more in line with Republican ideals of a smaller decentralized government.
  • How would you fairly draw the lines and equitably distribute Philadelphia’s nearly 250 schools? Along city council district lines or Hornbeck’s 22 clusters?
  • Would wealthier areas like Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, University City, or Center City attempt to have their own districts, further stratifying the city?
  • How would the city’s high student mobility rate impact deconsolidation, and what would be the impact of losing a citywide curriculum and pacing model?

School district deconsolidation is by no means a silver bullet for the complex problems confronting urban communities, nor is it always feasible. While state and local leaders’ willingness to put everything on the table doesn’t guarantee success, reexamining the idea of “one city, one district” might be a step toward a more equitable future.

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Decentralization: What we now have in Philly: one unified district that is administratively organized into smaller regions to create a more manageable system.

Deconsolidation: The legal act of breaking a larger district into smaller, separately governed, legally distinct school districts, usually within the same city.

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