Education Opinion

How Washington Can Help Reinvent the School District

By Bryan C. Hassel — March 07, 2001 8 min read
A charter-district program could spark one of the most urgently needed changes in public education: the reinvention of the school district.

President Bush’s education package includes the intriguing idea of “charter districts"—granting school districts freedom from federal strings in exchange for strict accountability for results. If structured thoughtfully, a charter- district program could spark one of the most urgently needed changes in public education: the reinvention of the school district.

It’s relatively easy to find examples of individual schools that have managed to raise the achievement levels of even the most disadvantaged students. But finding an entire district—especially an inner-city system—that has made significant progress is much more challenging. Successful schools are often islands within seas of mediocrity or hopelessness.

Though policy changes like the creation of the charter school sector are undermining school districts’ geographic monopoly on public education, the vast majority of public school students will attend district schools for the foreseeable future. Consequently, devising ways to revamp school districts for high performance is one of the most pressing imperatives of education policy today.

In recent years, a wide range of institutions and researchers have called for a fundamental rethinking of how districts work. Though specific proposals vary, here are some of the basic ideas behind this new model:

  • Substantial autonomy for schools. In the new school district, schools have significant control over all important decisions, including how to spend their money, how to staff their operations, and how to organize instruction to meet high standards. Unlike the “school-based management” plans now common in American school districts, the new model makes school-based authority real and enduring, perhaps by constituting schools as independent legal entities.
  • Accountability for results. Schools in the new school district operate under performance contracts that specify ambitious targets for improvement in student achievement. A school’s leadership maintains the right to manage the school only by meeting those goals over time.
  • Choice for families. Families in the new school district may choose to send their children to a wide range of schools. In addition to meeting performance targets, a school’s leadership must attract and retain sufficient enrollment to stay at the helm.
  • New providers of public education. The new school district casts a wide net to find the best leadership for its schools. Though it may staff schools in the traditional way (by hiring a school principal and faculty), it may also elect to contract with a nonprofit organization (like the local Urban League) or a for-profit management company to lead schools.
  • New roles for the school board and district administration. Rather than setting detailed policies that dictate what happens in schools, the school board in the new school district focuses on setting high standards for school performance, identifying leadership for schools, and overseeing performance-based contracts with the chosen leadership teams. Rather than directly providing schooling in its jurisdiction, the board ensures that high- quality education is available to all of its students. District service functions (like human resources and professional development) may continue to exist, but only to the extent that schools choose to hire them over other providers.

Such an arrangement has important advantages over the traditional governance model. It focuses the attention of district leaders on what matters most—ensuring that every child in the district attends a high-quality school. By relieving district leaders of the need to think about the panoply of auxiliary issues that currently occupy them—everything from food service to dress codes—the model frees them up to concentrate on recruiting the best providers of education, setting high standards for them, and holding them accountable for meeting the standards.

School leaders, too, gain focus. Since they enter into a performance contract that specifies the outcomes they must achieve to keep their positions, they have strong incentives to do what is necessary to meet their targets. Since they must attract and retain students in order to remain viable, they must be responsive to the needs of the children that enroll.

The number and diversity of voices calling for such an approach continues to multiply. The Education Commission of the States empaneled a National Commission on Governing America’s Schools to generate ideas about making school districts more effective. The commission, which included a broad array of perspectives, devised two new models of district governance—both of them drawing elements from the list above. The commission drew on the work of scholars such as Paul T. Hill, Lawrence C. Pierce, and James W. Guthrie, whose book Reinventing Public Education portrays a vision of a system of “contract schools.”

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, has called for something similar: a system in which all schools are charter schools. Charter Schools in Action, a book by Chester E. Finn Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek, concludes with a description of how such a system might work.

How well would such an approach work? Frankly, we don’t know, for one simple reason: No major school district has made the transformation. It’s not hard to see why. Transforming a school district in such a significant way is fraught with political and bureaucratic obstacles. Numerous interests have a direct stake in the way things are, and they’re not likely to step aside because of calls from a national commission or interesting books about governance reform.

If the federal government can offer a sufficiently compelling package of incentives, superintendents and school boards interested in change may find it possible to overcome the obstacles they face.

Years of research have documented the resiliency of the traditional form of school system governance. Frederick M. Hess of the University of Virginia, for example, writes that while districts are constantly changing policies, they rarely do so in ways that alter the basic terms of the system. Even in Milwaukee, a district challenged by a relatively large outflow of students due to publicly funded private school vouchers and the rise of independent charter schools, the school board has responded primarily by allowing new options to flourish around the edges of the system, not by revamping the system itself.

In addition to political and bureaucratic costs, districts moving to an entirely new approach to governance would incur financial expenses. Making such a transition would require a great deal of planning and legal work, all of which would require the attention of staff and outlays of cash. In effect, a district would be launching a new enterprise with all of the attendant start-up costs.

In all likelihood, there are many superintendents and school board leaders across the country who would like to experiment with significant governance reforms. But weighing the potential benefits against the daunting costs, most of these potential catalysts of change decide to pursue more incremental improvements.

President Bush’s idea of “charter districts” creates an opportunity to begin changing these calculations in at least some districts. If the federal government can offer a sufficiently compelling package of incentives, superintendents and school boards interested in change may find it possible to overcome the obstacles they face.

Here’s how such an initiative could work. The U.S. Department of Education invites each district to enter into an agreement with the federal government to become a “charter district.” A charter district agrees to two basic terms. First, it commits to thoroughgoing reform along the lines described above: granting schools real autonomy, holding them accountable for results and family choice, and rethinking the very role of the school board and district administration.

Second, a charter district agrees to ambitious performance targets. Continuation of its charter status hinges on meeting goals for improvement in student achievement over time.

In return, the district reaps a pair of substantial benefits. As proposed in the president’s “No Child Left Behind” document, a charter district gains great flexibility in its spending of federal dollars.

School system governance is a quintessentially local issue. Changes in how districts organize themselves cannot—and should not—be dictated from Washington.

It can lump all of its formerly categorical funding together and spend it on any legitimate purpose.

While districts engaged in significant reform would undoubtedly enjoy this kind of freedom, flexibility alone may not be enough of an inducement to districts. To sweeten the pot sufficiently, the department offers a second benefit: supplemental federal funding to defray the costs of governance reform. A charter district receives a significant sum of money to pay the expenses of planning and carrying out a transition to its new model.

Within a few years, this initiative would produce a handful of working models of wide-ranging governance reform around the country. Those that worked well would maintain their charter status, and serve as an inspiration and laboratory for like-minded school system leaders in other places. A small investment of federal resources would leverage districtwide change not just in the initial takers of the offer, but also in other districts that followed the lead of the pioneers.

School system governance is a quintessentially local issue. Changes in how districts organize themselves cannot—and should not—be dictated from Washington. But since local change is often so difficult to undertake, the federal government has a unique opportunity to serve a catalytic role, creating a space for locally driven experiments. The result could be the proliferation of what is all too rare in today’s educational landscape: entire school districts that work.

Bryan C. Hassel is the president of Public Impact, an education research and consulting firm based in Charlotte, N.C. He is the author of The Charter School Challenge: Avoiding the Pitfalls, Fulfilling the Challenge (Brookings Institution Press, 1999).

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as How Washington Can Help Reinvent the School District