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Report Advocates More Authority For Urban Schools

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Urban school systems should give all operating funds and the authority to spend that money to individual schools, which would in turn pay taxes to support a streamlined central office, a new report recommends.

The report, released this month, was prepared by the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a coalition of reform leaders who are working in major cities to move authority, resources, and accountability from the central office to the school level.

The recommendations are drawn from the reformers' experiences trying to rethink the role of school districts in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

"For schools to be accountable for results," the report says, "schools and their communities need authority. They need to be able to decide what and how they will teach to meet high district standards, who will be hired, and how they will spend their funds and use their buildings."

The recommendations, based on research and the lessons learned in these districts, cover governance, budgets, curriculum and instruction, personnel, facilities and services, and accountability.

School districts in all of the cities represented by the Cross City Campaign are pursuing elements of this agenda, the report notes, although no district has embraced every idea.

While "rhetorical pleas for decentralization are commonplace," the report says, in practice many school districts have given little real authority to schools.

School Councils

Rather than debating which specific tasks should move to schools, the report recommends that almost all functions be carried out at schools under the authority of democratically selected school councils. These councils then would decide whether to purchase services from the central office, from clusters of cooperating schools, or from outside groups.

As is now done in Chicago, the report calls for the school councils to hire and evaluate principals, draw up school-development plans, and control the school budget.

New Authority

The central office, while pared down, should be the site for important functions, it says, including setting goals and standards, insuring equity, assisting failing schools, providing schools with money, connecting schools to a management-information system, providing legal assistance, and handling background checks and recruitment of personnel.

Transportation, food, and payroll services could be made available if schools wanted them and if the central office could supply high-quality services efficiently, it says.

Although it might require a change in state law to send operating funds directly to schools, the report asserts that this strategy would give schools the tools they need to get the job done.

The change in budget authority should allow schools to use money across budget categories and across years, the report says, rather than requiring them to spend all their money each year. In the case of a citywide shortfall, schools, rather than the central office, would determine their own cuts.

In exchange for this far-reaching control over money, schools would provide "readable budgets and finance reports," the report says.

Schools also would pay for annual audits and report payments made to vendors and the race and gender of those vendors.

Smaller Schools

Under such a system, school budgets would have to be reformatted to be easily readable, the report says, and funds would flow to schools based on a weighting system that would funnel more money to low-income students.

Categorical funds--money awarded for special purposes such as special or bilingual education--would be pooled when possible, and the equity department of the central office would insure that students who generated additional special funds were benefiting, the report says.

To make urban systems work for students, the report recommends that no school have more than 500 children.

Communities of teachers, principals, and parents should make decisions about what to teach within a framework of high aca~demic standards, it says.

School-development plans created by the school councils would "foster a climate of continuously improving curriculum, instruction, and professional development," the report says.

But to meet the challenges of urban schools, teachers would need the flexibility to design a schedule that allowed them to meet regularly for professional development.

Teachers also should devise methods to assess students in several ways, including portfolios, journals, observations, and discussions with parents, the report recommends.

Small schools work best, the report says, when they are linked with other schools through networks that allow them to share resources and ideas.

Personnel Decisions

To carry out their missions, schools should be staffed with people who want to be there.

But heavily centralized personnel systems now "distance staffing decisions from school needs" and are slow and complex, according to the report.

It recommends that schools carry out all substantive personnel functions.

Each school district should negotiate "master contracts" that give individual schools a range of options on operating details. The report says such details should include class size, the number of teacher-preparation periods, the number and extent of nonteaching duties, scheduling, and transfer policy.

Finally, the group's report urges school systems to create accountability mechanisms that provide understandable, reliable information.

"One of the district's major responsibilities is to collect a wide range of school data, compile it, and make it available to every school," it says.

The district's role in such a system would be oversight and support for schools.

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