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Schools and Local Government: The Best and Worst of Us

David Franz

Last month, Jonathan Chait wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Why the Worst Governments in America Are Local Governments.” Chait argued that, contrary to certain received political ideas, local governments are often more intrusive, arbitrary, and ineffective than their state and federal versions. Worries people typically have about big, centralized governments, might be better directed at relatively small organizations, covering a tiny geographic area, and serving few people—the cities, counties, and school districts that make up local government in America. He has a point. From economic protectionism to police brutality to plain old corruption, small governments get into a lot of big brotherish kind of trouble. Bad government is not always big government.

There are, however, a few points to be made in favor of these smaller governing bodies.

First, if local government is sometimes bad, the alternative is not always better. One advantage of a city government or a school board is that their responsibilities are relatively clear when you elect them and when you want to complain. When authority is shifted away from these bodies, it rarely goes directly to a state or federal agency, but to a regional hybrid of appointed commissions and boards with a mix of local elected officials from the region. This system of regional boards dilutes and confuses responsibility, distancing voters from decisions through bureaucratic complexity as much as physical space. You might not know your senator or your city councillor, but you may know both better than your regional transportation board representative.

Second, local governance is more effective than the stories of failure would suggest. Take school districts, for example, and their widely ranging sizes. In one sense, school districts are all “local,” in that they have specific boundaries and elected representatives who live in the district. However, local also tends to imply small or at least at the scale of community identity (not Los Angeles). Districts are a great testing ground for questions of scale. For one thing, they vary so much in size, from a district of a single school with a few dozen students to, for example, Los Angeles Unified, a massive operation with a student population larger than the total populations of some small states. For another, the appropriate scale of school governance has been a topic of practical and academic interest for decades. Finally, the data on the performance of schools, while not perfect, is far better than in any other area of local government.

In theory, the advantages of size in school districts are obvious. A school system that buys and manages more of everything—buses, cafeterias, curricula—can specialize and make improvements in each area. A big system can accommodate students and teachers with niche interests in languages, trades, or musical instruments. Large school districts promise efficiency, opportunities, and insulation from small-town politics.

In fact, however, bigger is not better. Studies consistently find that districts become less effective beyond a relatively modest size of 5,000–10,000 students. Size is not the only factor, of course, but all else being equal, students in large districts perform worse on standardized tests and have lower attendance, and the parents of these students are less satisfied. In short, large districts tend to experience diseconomies of scale—they are actually less efficient in the delivering the same services.

Size has its own challenges. Coordinating the work of so many employees is difficult and costly. It also becomes more difficult to cultivate empathy, loyalty, and commitment from parents and other community members. As economist William Fischel argues in Making the Grade, school systems breed political engagement and social capital. School districts provide civic education to parents, and smaller districts seem to do this better.

A third point is less in favor of local government and more about the inevitably of our attachment to it. As Chait acknowledges the “myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche.” Our attachment to localism is not ultimately about effectiveness, and it is probably not something we can shake easily, rooted as it is in our tradition of local self-governance. When conditions allow, we regard having authority over our own affairs as right and good. Sometimes, we prove incapable of doing that.

The failures of local governments are neither universal nor random. They stem from deeper economic and social problems. Financial crises, political drama, and a general lack of accountability to an informed public are symptoms of deeper issues. In isolated cases, we can bring in outside agencies to help stave off the worst results of that failure. But we should hope that the need for this does not become the rule. We need small government to govern well because there is no structural solution to a democratic people that cannot govern themselves.

David Franz, Director of the Shafter Education Partnership for the city of Shafter, California, is a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.