Day 10: Decentralize decisions in failing urban districts

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Sometimes failure is not just in a handful of schools, but in the majority of a district’s schools. In those cases, a broader application of key principles of the 1993 Reform Act (empowering principals and teachers, clear measurement of student performance and accountability for performance, and competition for students) is needed. One way to do that is to pilot a fully decentralized network of schools that are given charter flexibility at the school level.

Angus McBeath, the former superintendent of the Edmonton Public School System, took a school system 30 percent larger than Boston’s and gave district schools the same freedoms and accountability that charters have. The so-called “Edmonton model” empowers principals, teachers and parents by decentralizing budgets to the school level, giving broader powers over hiring and firing, and allowing for schools to brand themselves on the basis of specific ethos and emphases (e.g., music, sports, theater, math and science, etc.).

Similar reforms were enacted in the Barnstable Public School system by then-superintendent Tom McDonald and Town Manager John Klimm in the early 2000s. In both cases,

  • Authority over the schools and control of school budgets were brought closer to teachers and principals
  • The district office was transformed so that principals could act more independently, presiding over the equivalent of “Horace Mann” charter schools, but without the burdensome layer of state approval and oversight
  • The school department’s finance and human resources offices were merged into the municipal offices, reducing redundancy, bringing finances under control, and freeing up money for innovation and improvement
  • At least 80 cents and 92 cents on the education dollar in Barnstable and Edmonton, respectively, were controlled by the schools
  • Schools were allowed to keep savings gained on reforms rather than sending them back to the superintendent’s office.

In both cases the reforms generated impressive system-wide improvement. You can see articles on Barnstable here–1, 2, 3, and “A Civil Union: How a Town Government and Schools Consolidated Functions, With Benefits for Both” in the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Advocate, 24/3.

In Edmonton, these reforms were paired with school choice across the entire public district, which importantly engaged parents across the Edmonton district. Edmonton allows parents to choose from among district schools, and the resulting innovations have been so successful that they prompted many area private schools to petition to join the public school system.

The DESE should pilot such a rigorous system-wide parental choice system in one or two districts that have demonstrated consistent failure. To get this right is no small task, as it is a sea change in the way districts operate, so DESE will need to focus some real technical assistance behind implementation of some aspects of the effort. Three big focuses come to mind:

  • consolidation of its own finances with the city’s so that the superintendent’s office is focused on academics not dollars;
  • the systems that would allow for the superintendent to allow schools to manage money and people without all the strings currently in place while maintaining accountability and fairness
  • a system-wide parental choice system that is fair, but also allows people to vote with their feet within the district.

Start with one district. Implement methodically and learn how to do it. Only after learning lessons should the Department consider application to other districts.

Such a reform would be in marked contrast to the glacial pace to closing failing district schools in urban districts, which has led to apathy among parents. If there is any determinant of a student’s academic performance on a par with the student-teacher relationship, it is the involvement of his or her parents. And the reform has two additional benefits: It puts the control of money closer to and more money in the classrooms. With too little of the pie of education funding spent on teachers (translation: too much money is spent on the bureaucracy), that’s a good thing.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.