Forget Too Big To Fail School District Is Too Big To Succeed
Written by Michael Lewis on September 25, 2008
By Michael Lewis
As Alberto Carvalho prepares to sign a $275,000-a-year contract to be Miami-Dade school superintendent, our condolences: success is impossible.
Impossible, that is, if we measure success not in negotiating the pitfalls of a divided school board or bringing finances back from the abyss, but in raising our children’s education level to where it should be.
It won’t be Dr. Carvalho’s fault if he fails in that. The world’s best educator couldn’t succeed. After all, predecessor Rudy Crew was high in national educational rankings.
Nor could the world’s best administrator. Local government pro Merrett Stierheim, Dr. Crew’s predecessor, didn’t do that either.
Nor could the world’s best politician. Roger Cuevas, who preceded Mr. Stierheim, was adept at schmoozing board members but didn’t improve education.
In fact, with the best qualities of all three you’d still fall short.
Nor is it because of a — to put it politely — lame school board. Nine brilliant saints working with a model superintendent couldn’t achieve the upgrade we need.
Nor is it due to inadequate funding or overspending. Both are impediments, as are issues with the board and superintendent, but fix them all and our schools still wouldn’t rate an A-plus — and we shouldn’t settle for less where our future workforce and leaders are concerned.
The problem is size. While Washington has just decided that some financial institutions are too big to fail, Florida law dictates that our school system must be too big to succeed.
Florida’s constitution requires each of the 67 counties to have one school system with a single board and superintendent. When the state population was sparse — as it was until modern highways, air conditioning and mosquito control made rapid growth inevitable — that worked.
It still works in rural Florida. Twenty-six counties still have fewer than 50,000 people. That’s twice the population of Doral or just a bit bigger than Coral Gables. Each of those 26 has fewer people than work in the Miami-Dade school system alone.
Miami-Dade today has 2.475 million people, 50 times as many as the largest of those 26 counties. Yet we’re governed by the same archaic requirement that a single school district must fit all.
But a school system isn’t a factory.
The bigger a manufacturer, the less it costs to make each item and the better each can be made.
In the schools, the more students, the more it costs to educate each and the poorer the education each gets.
While the factory’s hundreds of thousands of identical items need identical treatment, Miami-Dade public schools as of Friday had 339,448 students, each with differing educational needs.
In a district with 392 schools, 23,097 teachers, 55,035 employees and a $5.5 billion budget, neither Dr. Carvalho nor any other superintendent can bring personal treatment to each student. It just can’t happen.
In fact, if he went every school day to a different school, it would take Dr. Carvalho two years just to visit each, much less know the administrators, faculty or pupils.
How big is his bureaucracy? For months we’ve been asking how many people work in school headquarters. As we were told again Friday by information chief John Schuster, who’s been working directly under Dr. Calvalho, "The District doesn’t track this number."
When you don’t know how many people work in headquarters, it’s far, far too big. Time to break it up.
Forget about public disgust with board shenanigans or concerns about the quick pick of Dr. Carvalho without the board setting criteria for a superintendent, much less crafting a plan for the future. That’s not the best reason to dismantle the structure.
Forget too about issues with Dr. Carvalho that surfaced within hours of his selection, which was made with no investigation. Whether or not he had a romantic relationship with a Miami Herald reporter or they had a pact to advance each other’s careers, he could still be as effective a superintendent as his predecessors. Unfortunately, that still means failure.
Forget too that we did no national superintendent search. The board has made only three in 50 years, and only Dr. Crew has ever come from the outside. As an insider under three past superintendents, Dr. Carvalho could meet criteria if the board had bothered to establish any.
Forget too Dr. Carvalho’s hefty contract. It’s reasonable, and it’s only three years. It will take that long to do what is needed to replace him.
What is needed? A statewide campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow any county with 50,000 people to vote on whether to have multiple school districts.
That would give the public a choice. If we were happy with monkey business as usual in the schools, we could do nothing.
Should we feel, however, that excellence is imperative and we could achieve it by dividing the system into clusters closer to home, to be run by a staff so small that executives could actually count the administrators, we could achieve that.
Mayors of four Miami-Dade cities five years ago called for a study of such a breakup. It never was done.
But we don’t need another study. In 2000 Caroline Hoxby of Harvard did one that focused on Miami-Dade’s single district and Boston’s 70 — that’s right, 70 — districts and found that having more public school systems in a metropolitan region improved education and cut school spending.
She found children 1.4 grade levels ahead of us in smaller districts, 15% higher young adult earnings and less demand for private education.
Moreover, she found that smaller districts almost equally benefit black and white children as well as rich and poor. Everybody wins when schools come down to human scale.
We don’t have to look far for a model. Our system was subdivided into six regions until administrators cut that back to four a few months ago — though they weren’t independent, as they must be.
Whether we need six or four or, like Boston, 70, we need a breakup. As long as all districts have similar economic and ethnic breakdowns, what could the objection be to improving quality on a more human scale?
Unfortunately, we can’t look to Tallahassee. Two legislators upset with the choice of Dr. Carvalho want to keep our schools unified but make the superintendent’s job elective, thus preserving the worst of today while degrading professionalism.
No, the initiative must come from organizations like the Beacon Council, which knows the value of a highly educated workforce in attracting jobs, and from chambers of commerce, which have similar aims.
And, it won’t hurt if parents and politicians rise up in disgust not with school politics but with our education level. Regardless of who is superintendent or on the school board, we’re going to get more of the same until we change the rules of the game.
And rule Number 1 must be to bring education closer to home via a constitutional amendment.