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Published in Print: March 5, 2008, as States Eye Looser Rein on Districts

States Eye Looser Rein on Districts

More operating leeway seen as spurring local improvement.

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The push to give school districts greater operating flexibility—a grassroots rallying cry eclipsed in recent years by the charter school movement—is seeing a resurgence, as states seek to spur innovation that will help raise student achievement.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue is proposing “performance contracts” that would free administrators in 15 districts from some regulatory strictures as early as next fall, if they agreed to meet achievement targets in the next three years.

California is granting significant operating leeway to two large districts, Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified, in exchange for their agreeing to work toward student-achievement goals in three areas. And Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons envisions “empowerment schools” statewide—if the state can find the money.

In seeking such changes, however, states must cope with budget pressures, wariness on the part of some districts, and questions about the right balance between state and local control.

Case in point: Georgia, where some school leaders are disappointed by what they see as something less than a major policy shift.

“We have a task force that was charged to come up with a new method of financing public education, and this is what we’ve got?” said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Others, though, say they would welcome the chance to use state aid in ways that they think are more appropriate for their districts.

“We’ve been saying all along that we’re in the school business, and we should know best how to provide instruction,” said J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent of the 160,000-student Gwinnett County schools in suburban Atlanta.

Renewed Interest

The concept of deregulation in education certainly is not new, said Kathy Christie, a senior vice president at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

For example, site-based managementRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, a trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s, aimed to give teachers, and sometimes parents and community members, more authority over school-level decisions. In Chicago, decentralization even led to local school councils that were given the power to hire and fire principals.

But in most cases, school leaders didn’t really gain control over education spending. And many of the efforts to give local schools freedom from strict requirements were scaled back as the charter school movement took off, Ms. Christie added. Charter schools are publicly funded but largely independent in how they operate.

Now, with the federal No Child Left Behind Act adding more requirements for schools and districts, Ms. Christie said states are likely “feeling a groundswell from the locals.”

Seeking Some Leeway

Even as they press school districts to improve student performance, states are looking for ways to loosen the regulatory reins and give districts more leeway in making decisions on how to meet those goals.

GEORGIA

Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, is proposing “performance contracts” that would free school districts from certain statutes and education regulations in exchange for meeting achievement goals over a three-year period. Up to 15 districts could participate next fall if the legislature approves the bill.

CALIFORNIA

The Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified school districts have entered into a “partnership for improved student success” with the state, giving them flexibility in spending certain categories of state funding. The aim is to focus money on improvements in three areas: the push for a 100 percent graduation rate, preparing all graduates for success in higher education or a career with “economic growth potential,” and helping all students, especially English-language learners, reach the proficient level on California’s academic standards.

“They’re saying: ‘We’ve got so much compliance to do. Let us out of some of that,’ ” she said.

Donald R. McAdams, the president of the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based group working with districts on governance, said that “the pendulum” in education has for years been swinging between centralization and decentralization.

“Where a lot of states go wrong is that they begin to micromanage district operations,” said Mr. McAdams, a former member of the Houston Independent School District board. States and districts should instead determine “at what level in the organization should certain decisions be made,” he said.

Mr. McAdams added that states should set academic standards, assess performance, and “shine a spotlight on performance” through an accountability system. But they don’t need to tell districts which professional-development program to use or where to buy materials.

“You won’t stimulate innovation, and you won’t have much impact, when you’re too prescriptive,” Mr. McAdams said.

California’s Example

The states are well aware of the risks from overregulation.

A report released in California a year ago, called “Getting Down to Facts,” called for an overhaul of the state’s school governance and financing system, particularly what one research paper called the “proliferation of categorical programs” that has resulted in a confusing and often duplicative system. ("California's Schooling Is 'Broken,'" March 19, 2007.)

“The state holds schools accountable for the results of pupil performance, but schools are not given the resources and flexibility to allocate them to achieve those results,” Thomas Timar, an education professor at the University of California, Davis, wrote in that paper.

So even though a mounting budget deficit is preventing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, from making major changes to the state’s education system this year, he is working with Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to respond in some way to the issues exposed by the “Getting Down to Facts” report.

The state has entered into a partnership with two school districts—Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified—that will free administrators there from some restrictions attached to school funding, with the understanding that they are working on three specific priorities. They are: achieving a 100 percent graduation rate, preparing all graduates for success in higher education or a career, and helping all students, but especially English-language learners, to reach the proficient level on state standards.

“If we’re going to go after these three big areas, we’re going to need some relief and flexibility,” said Michael E. Hanson, the superintendent of the 77,000-student Fresno district.

Mr. Hanson and Christopher J. Steinhauser, the superintendent of the 90,000-student Long Beach district, have been working with the state education department’s “waivers” office to identify programs that might allow for flexibility.

For example, the state has a supplemental-counseling program targeting students in grades 7-12. Seventh and 8th graders, however, often attend middle schools with 6th graders, especially in Long Beach, which has mostly middle schools and K-8 schools.

A more logical approach for a district like that would be to also make use of those funds in 6th grade, “when those kids first hit secondary school,” Mr. Hanson said.

He added that amount of flexibility granted should also depend of the performance level of the district. The Long Beach district, which received the 2003 Broad Prize for Urban Education, and was again a finalist last year, has earned more freedom. Meanwhile, Mr. Hanson agrees with the Fresno district—which is facing sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, but is improving—being on “a shorter leash.”

As for low-performing districts that are not improving, he added, “that’s what the restrictions are for.”

Charter Model

In Georgia, Gov. Perdue, a Republican, is taking a page from the charter school movement in his proposal.

The proposal, which the governor has said would redefine “the relationship between the state and local school systems,” was the chief recommendation from his Education Finance Task Force.

Districts that chose to enter into performance contracts would be held to higher achievement standards and could face serious consequences, such as restructuring or sanctions, if they didn’t meet performance targets over a three-year period. Although districts would not receive extra funding at this point, added flexibility could come in such areas as class size and curriculum.

While Gov. Perdue wants to start with 15 school districts next school year, he eventually would like to extend it as an option to all 180 districts in the state, which has a public school enrollment of 1.6 million.

Many observers—especially those in districts involved in an education adequacy lawsuit in the state—had hoped the task force would devise a new funding formula for the state.

But others are enthusiastic.

“We’re not going to start adding a lot of students to a class,” said Mr. Wilbanks, the Gwinnett County superintendent, who added that he knows teacher groups in the state are opposed to such a move. “But we think if you increase class size by just one student,” he said, “there are significant dollars there” in savings.

'Getting Waivers'

The concept of using freedom and flexibility to improve performance is also at the center of the “empowerment schools” plan that Gov. Gibbons, a Republican, has championed in Nevada.

Although a budget crunch is preventing the $10 million approved last year for the program from being spent this school year, some districts are moving ahead with giving the designation to one or more of their schools anyway.

“An advantage to doing so is the possibility of getting waivers from the state board of education for certain statutes or regulations,” Keith Rheault, the Nevada state schools superintendent, said in an e-mail.

The governor’s plan is modeled in part on a program that started in fall 2006 in the state’s 303,000-student Clark County school district, which includes Las Vegas. In the district’s eight empowerment schools, the staffs were given more time and money to use as they decided as long as the freedom led to improved student achievement and school climate. A pay-for-performance program was also added at those schools.

Now—in another example of negotiating for flexibility—the district is working with Mr. Rheault and the governor to gain access to some of the money that has been held back this year in exchange for other state education aid intended for remedial instruction.

Vol. 27, Issue 26, Pages 1,18

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