Smaller Is Better

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

Miami-Dade could experience similar divisiveness, cautions the Chamber of Commerce's Bud Park: "To peel off a segment of that would be to say, 'I'd be happy to live in Coral Gables with my little district and not worry about the rest.' There's no sense of overall community benefit."

The only problem with the resegregation argument is that it's already happened. Thirty years of desegregation has essentially failed. All you have to do is look at the inner-city schools, where 80 and 90 percent of the students are of one race, say observers like Linda Eads, former principal of MAST Academy (Maritime and Science Technology) and now a Jeb Bush appointee to the state's Board of Education. "Look at Northwestern, Miami High, Central -- are those schools integrated?" she asks. "So what are we doing here?"

Victor Young, president of the Ohio-based Learning Communities Network, which concentrates on urban-education issues, agrees. "Since 1970 the country's schools haven't become less segregated, because desegregation is a function of housing and economics," he asserts. "Schools do nothing for it. If we care about that, we go after housing."

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 trick in subdividing the district, according to Dario Moreno, is to prevent affluent places like Pinecrest, South Miami, and Coral Gables from clustering together, leaving other districts saddled with the poorest children and their special educational challenges. "To me you would break up the district almost the same way as redistricting is done," he muses. "In drawing boundaries, you want to create situations where you pair rich areas and poor areas, so as not to create inequalities. If it's done right, it could work." For instance, pairing Aventura and Liberty City might make sense, or Hialeah and Miami Lakes, Overtown and Miami Beach.

FIU history professor Brian Peterson has been writing about local education issues for years, distributing his views through an e-mail newsletter sent to hundreds of policymakers, journalists, and education wonks. He thinks breaking up the district would be problematic because of the natural tendency of people to draw lines and grab resources most beneficial to their own narrow interests. But he has a few theories about how to make it work. One idea would be to make each neighborhood high school feeder pattern its own district. (A feeder pattern is all the elementary and middle schools whose students "feed" into one high school.) That would be the ultimate version of community schooling, but it has an inherent disadvantage: It would create less diverse districts with great economic and social disparities. The low-income districts would have the most challenges, the least tax base, and the hardest time attracting quality teachers and administrators.

Like Moreno, Peterson prefers the idea of pairing low- and middle-income areas. In his version, the poorest feeder patterns would be matched up with one or two middle-class ones -- for instance, Booker T. Washington High with Palmetto High; Miami High with South Miami High; Jackson High with Coral Gables High; Edison High with Miami Beach High; Central High with American High; Northwestern High with Miami Springs High; Homestead High with South Dade High. "I consider this to be the optimal districting plan for our county," he says. "It will give the best overall results while also doing the most for the low-income students. The new districts would be small, flexible, and highly competitive with each other."

T. Willard Fair, who heads the Urban League of Greater Miami and sits on both the state Board of Education and the state-imposed district advisory board, acknowledges that certain elements in Tallahassee are convinced smaller districts are better, but he warns that this issue requires serious, detailed discussion: "We need a diagnosis of what things are wrong with the system. How we select leaders, how we select curriculum, a comparative analysis with systems that are smaller. The bottom line is whether reorganization improves our ability to deliver quality education to children."

One of the key players in this discussion will be the teachers union, although that role undoubtedly will be clouded by the ongoing federal investigation into allegations that president Pat Tornillo (who announced last week he was going on indefinite leave) may have embezzled money from the organization. Union leaders oppose breaking up the district because they fear it would only reinforce the divisions introduced in 1996, when school board members began to be elected from single-member districts. Yet the ever-practical UTD is talking to the City of Miami about helping to run its charter schools, some of which could be "converted" public schools. Union executives Merri Mann and Tom Gammon are realistic about their reasons for getting involved. Beyond a desire to remain the bargaining agent for teachers in city schools, they maintain that the union wants to help run schools that are more flexible and accountable than most district schools -- which sounds a lot like the stated goals of the people who want to break up the district.

Gammon: "If you're going to change education, you have to do it school by school. The schools should own the problem. Right now it's kind of top down. Charter schools work because the community owns them. We think we can be innovative and sell new educational models back to the district."

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