Smaller Is Better

The case for breaking up the grossly dysfunctional Miami-Dade County school district

For that reason, plus the pressure from local leaders genuinely frustrated with the pace of change, it seems apparent that Stierheim is not going to get the time he needs to really fix the system. In a perfect world the school board would unite behind a common vision for reform, and it would empower Stierheim to get the job done. The cowboys in Tallahassee would keep the pressure on but not try so hard to undermine legitimate efforts at reform. Clearly that's not going to happen. What will happen is that infighting, public frustration, and raw politics will slowly tear the district apart, in a literal sense.

Rather than allowing the education system to disintegrate by default, it makes a lot more sense to consider chopping it up in an intelligent manner that actually has a shot at ensuring high-quality education. Even if it doesn't turn out to be feasible, the mere threat of division could produce a communitywide effort to save the existing system, which would be worth it. One reason for the current mess is that too many people have impassively sat on the sidelines. "My preference would be to have one district that works well," says state House majority leader Marco Rubio. "But [breaking up the district] is a concept that merits discussion. I'm for anything that gives parents more options. The rich and the middle class can get out. The only people who don't have real school choice are the poor. They are stuck in schools that are failing and can't do anything about it."

Illustration by Mark Poutenis
Surfside Mayor Paul Novack (top) and developer Ed Easton believe breaking up the school district might be the only way to save public education
Courtesy Wood + Zapata
Surfside Mayor Paul Novack (top) and developer Ed Easton believe breaking up the school district might be the only way to save public education

The idea of breaking up the district isn't new. It was proposed in 1980, as the county was undergoing substantial growing pains and the inner cities were descending into a hell from which they have yet to escape. At the time, there were about 230,000 students attending the public schools. For the next four years, despite an enormous influx of Cuban and Haitian immigrants, enrollment actually decreased by a few thousand as Anglo parents pulled their kids out of public schools or fled across the county line.

Then in 1996 (about 100,000 students later) a group of frustrated local leaders, including former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, Surfside's Novack, and others, brought up the subject again (there was also legislation percolating in Tallahassee). The school district responded with a thick report claiming that division would do more harm than good. In 1998 legislators in Broward and Palm Beach proposed a constitutional amendment permitting Florida's school districts (whose boundaries by state law conform to county boundaries) to divide into smaller units of at least 15,000 students. Octavio Visiedo, superintendent of schools at the time of the 1996 study, remembers staff concluding that division would be difficult because of issues such as equitable distribution of resources, desegregation, and finances. "Operationally it was probably doable, but financially a real nightmare," he recalls. "When you start breaking up, that affects the debt you can carry. We thought we'd lose some of our punch."

That's a good point, one of many made by critics of dividing big school districts. The district has certain assets, like buildings and equipment, and carries certain debts, such as bonds issued for construction. So how do you divide that? How do you fairly parcel out the assets? Tricky, but not an insurmountable problem. Attorney Miguel De Grandy suggests, for instance, that one way to split assets and obligations would be to give the greater chunk of the debt to the districts with the newest schools. That way districts with older schools in need of repair or replacement could sell bonds for such projects.

But sociologist Alex Stepick, director of FIU's Immigration and Ethnicity Institute, points out that smaller districts would lose much of the current economies of scale presented by Miami's big system. That could negatively affect the prices schools pay for supplies and services like buses and special-education programs. "These are most visible in the magnet schools, such as MAST Academy, DASH, and New World School of the Arts," says Stepick. "These schools are nationally recognized and extraordinarily successful."

De Grandy counters: New World and other special schools that are countywide assets could remain so. "You could develop a separate administration of these flagship schools, where each district contributes equally to the enrollment," he proposes.

In fact a number of knowledgeable people believe advantageous economies of scale could be preserved by creating a superstructure that would handle common functions (transportation, construction, procurement) through interlocal agreements among districts. "Obviously there's a point of diminishing returns if you go too small," notes Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office. "Nobody knows what the ideal [district] size is -- but it's still pretty clear that Miami is way too big." Greene adds that any division plan should allow students to move freely between districts, which would foster healthy competition and reduce the problem of segregated communities.

That's another compelling challenge. Breaking the district into smaller pieces could easily exacerbate the racial and economic divisions that already afflict this community. Do we really want to trap poor black and Hispanic kids in crumbling inner-city school systems so that affluent communities don't have to deal with them? Merri Mann, director of educational and professional issues for the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), admits the existing system hasn't been perfect but says it has tried to make up for social inequities. "I think oftentimes we look for easy answers," she says. "That's the answer New York City looked for over 30 years ago [by instituting local school councils]. They became fiefdoms -- incestuous and more corrupt. It was like, okay, you fixed the problem. But the fixing became worse than the problem. And now they're going back."

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