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When districts break up

By Ryan Bowers on Jul 27, 2011 01:16 PM

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.


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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Comments (18)

Submitted by SocialStudies Teach (not verified) on July 27, 2011 3:27 pm

Northeast residents have been asking to separate us from the rest of the city. If it were to be decentralized, maybe Regionalize it: South and Southwest, Center City, North and West, and Northeast. And let the Regions handle their own business with NO centralized admin.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2011 3:55 pm

That sounds reasonable. The city of Philadelphia is its own county, so why not treat it like one? One school district managing the entire city is just too much. If the city is already divided into different sections, let them split off and run on their own.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2011 4:10 pm

What happens to the magnet schools? Do you have to live in Northwest to go to Central and Girls? Center City for Masterman and SLA? What if a region has no magnet school (West, SW, etc.)? Will it mean there are "special" programs in all regions? If I pay Philadelphia taxes, shouldn't I have access to all of its resources?

Submitted by SocialStudies Teach (not verified) on July 27, 2011 4:15 pm

In my opinion, every Region should have a Central or Masterman.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 27, 2011 5:03 pm

Every high school should be a magnet school, not just one per region!

Submitted by SocialStudies Teach (not verified) on July 27, 2011 5:54 pm

What I would actually like is to take an area of the entire Franklin Mills Mall area and make several speciality schools (such as one for Creative and Performing Arts, Law, Business, COmmunications, International Baccalaureate, etc.) and have four or five of these around the city. This way, students all over the city can truly have an equal education. Each school could carry 800 students and each region would have a max of 10,000 students.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 3, 2011 2:12 pm

More choices for students would be great! More vocational courses would be beneficial so students may be motivated to attend and plan for their postsecondary goals!

Submitted by Martha McNugget (not verified) on July 27, 2011 10:17 pm

That's impossible. We don't live in Lake Wobegon.

Submitted by Ryan Bowers on July 27, 2011 4:19 pm

Great point. Reminds me of the issue brought up in a recent NYTimes article on charters moving to affluent suburbs. In it a suburban parent expresses his frustration with how his taxes are subsidizing the specialized education that charters provide for select students:

“Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ”


Submitted by SocialStudies Teach (not verified) on July 27, 2011 4:02 pm

I would also add that I pay PA taxes and Federal Taxes, shouldn't my kids be able to attend any school?

Submitted by Larry Bumgarner (not verified) on July 27, 2011 9:53 pm

Our system in Charlotte, North Carolina has continued to slide so poorly since 2005 that a group of us are trying the Deconsolidation route again.

We feel this is the new charter schools provide a superior education and can do it for about seventy percent the cost of public schools.

It is not about cost but about choice and a superior education.

We invite other groups to contact us and together we can start this all over the country.

In fact the Parents and Students are asking for change. Did you know the fastest growing group of home schoolers in the Country is African Americans. We need choice in all neighborhoods in all the cities.

Submitted by Ryan Bowers on July 28, 2011 11:42 am

Thanks, Larry. If I'm honest, the parent in me wants to join the movement for more choices now. I'm someone who'd send my 4 year old to a good charter school for kindergarten next year if he got in.

But what about the thousands of children in our cities who'll never win the charter school lottories?  Those folks are always going to be left out in a choice system that allows some winners and some losers.

You mentioned the African Americans community. One thing I can't stomach about choice, mostly because I often feel myself giving into it, is how choice panders to our own individual self-interest. Choice has created a divide in the Black community by offering a way out for a limited number of families, usually the ones who have it a little more together. My parents and grandparents didn't sweep floors and suffer through the humiliaton of segregation so I could just look out for my family and turn my back on everyone else.

My hope in examining deconsolidation was to see how it might meet the needs of every child in the city, including the most uneducated, uninformed and vulnerable among us. But I'm finding that meeting short term needs and planning for long term solutions is easier said than done.


Submitted by Larry Bumgarner (not verified) on July 28, 2011 6:47 pm

You concerns are exactly what we are concerned with.

As a volunteer in the challenged schools and communities I wanted to see what would help those schools and communities.

Have you been to the site ? This school took children the NY system said would never learn and has made them better students than the suburban counterparts.

What I would like to see is smaller school systems with charter schools in each neighborhood competing with the public school system for a child with a voucher or we call them scholarship.

The fact the charter school and voucher/scholarships exists in these neighborhoods would make the public schools better with the competition due to the fact you can judge the two of them on their successes.

We are moving into the era of a school of one and this is just a way of making the one size fits all education by the government with only memorization as the key component coming to an end.

Submitted by Audax (not verified) on July 28, 2011 11:17 am

The magnet schools are a big question, especially because of the pull of the alumni in this city. Perhaps if there were a joint agreement that any child from across the city got into it, they'd bring their funding with them to CHS, GHS, Masterman, Saul, SLA, etc do I think it would work. Dismantling the magnets would be ruinous since they are one of the things Philadelphia does right.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 28, 2011 3:34 pm

A quibble, but I think it's important to be scrupulously accurate when discussing these issues: you note at the bottom of the article that "decentralization" is what we have now in the city. But the superintendent largely did away with the decentralized model last year and in fact has concentrated power and authority at the central office level since she began here. We may still have some semblance of decentralization "on paper" but in reality things are managed very tightly downtown by Ackerman and her deputies.

Submitted by Ryan Bowers on July 28, 2011 3:13 pm

Thanks for the correction.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 30, 2011 4:54 pm

Thank you for this article. I believe that it can work in Philadelphia, and it would be far more cost effective than having a multitude of charter schools. Each smaller district should be required to adhere to some standards across the city; likewise to statewide standards. Perhaps 22 individual districts are too many? Were the reasons that this was not adopted those you cite in your article? I'm thinking there were too many lucrative contracts to be lost. With decentralization, there would be more healthy competition with smaller contracts for more suppliers. Another advantage that charter schools enjoy is that they can apply for large grants being their own LEA. If you had geographical districts, it would enable Title I grants to be more effectively distributed, the greater being given to the poorer communities. It would also help neighborhood businesses and other charitable organizations target their donations. I am actually a homeschooler at heart, an Arts person. I had to enroll my kids in the local traditional public school because of family difficulties, and used my energies and time to try and improve this same school. Although my older son tested very high on the PSSAs, I had some ideological objections to following the route of trying to get him into Masterman. Yes, what about the other kids? It turned out that working with his teachers, and using peer tutoring and other posititve group strategies, helped his class as a whole do very well, in the 80th percentile for Proficient/Advanced. He was accepted into Central on his own merits; however, it turns out he's taking the artist/rebel route (sigh, I should've known.) I believe in neighborhood schools. I believe that every school can and should have the reputation of the special admission magnet schools. Why not? There have been spectacular successes by charter schools using tried and true: smaller class size, highly motivated and qualified teachers, and most importantly, teamwork. These schools (see US News & World Report, Jan 2010) in LA, did not have to change family circumstances to enable achievement better than suburban peers.
Finally, the SRC needs to go. Mayor Nutter needs to sue the State for all the damages they've caused in hiring megalomaniacs, and approving bad decisions. Sue for damages to the children and the higher taxes we're paying to try and bandage the wounds.

Submitted by cristina (not verified) on June 6, 2014 8:29 am
What did deconsolidation do for the other states? It doesn't make sense for me. What changes will come as a result of this? jocuri multiplayer

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