School & District Management Opinion

What Does Decentralization Look Like in Houston?

By Urban Education Contributor — October 22, 2018 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC, @RiceKinderHERC). This post is by Leah Binkovitz (@leahbink), senior editor for the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (@RiceKinderInst).

Today’s post is the first part of a two-part series about recent research findings on district decentralization and its effects in Houston. Stay tuned: On Thursday we will share part 2 of this research.

Why this Research

With its roots in the business world, the idea of school district decentralization is promoted as a way to put more control in the hands of administrators who know what students’ need best: principals. In the Houston Independent School District (HISD), currently among the top 10 largest school districts in the country, the vision for decentralization was supported as an opportunity for principals to start with a “blank page,” as former superintendent Rod Paige wrote in the Houston Business Journal back in 2000. Given authority over their budgets, Paige argued, principals could “build the program that they feel best addresses their students’ needs,” while being “held responsible for the success of their programs and the financial health of their schools.”

Houston, previously a highly centralized district, began its roughly 10-year decentralization process in the 1990s. The goal, wrote Paige, was that some 80 percent of the budget would be managed at the school-level, rather than by a central office.

But now, almost two decades after the completion of Houston’s decentralization process, questions about the effects on equitable funding and the overall impacts of the district’s decision to decentralize arise. In early 2018, then-superintendent Richard Carranza floated the idea of switching back to a centralized model of governance, stirring up renewed interest and controversy. Since then, Carranza has moved on to New York City and the district said it has no plans to reconsider its current model, but questions of equity and resources remain front of mind for many.

What the Research Examines

New research from the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research now sheds light on the implementation and impact of decentralization on the district’s schools, staff, and students to provide the necessary context for a thoughtful discussion and evaluation of the current model.

A team of HERC researchers set out to answer four core questions in a series of reports, the first two of which have been published so far: How was decentralization implemented in the district, how do principals feel about working within the current system, what measurable effects did decentralization have on student test scores, and how did decentralization impact funding equity across the district.

What the Research Finds

In a presentation to the school board in September, HERC Director Ruth López Turley summarized the findings from the first report, saying, “We found that overall decentralization was implemented with fidelity, but the following areas deviated somewhat from accepted theory and those are: small schools, magnets, and teacher salaries.”

Postdoctoral fellow Jodi Moon looked at the existing literature on decentralization to compare HISD’s implementation to a sort of theoretical ideal.

“There are many important elements of this kind of model that are definitely in place within HISD,” Moon told the board. The changes were phased in over several years. Decisionmaking shifted to the campuses. And principals were granted more control over their budgets, although not the 80 percent Paige had envisioned, but a little less than half currently. But there were other elements that Moon described as partially fulfilled and still others that were never accomplished or deviate from the ideal outlined in the literature, including subsidies for certain types of schools on top of the weighted student funding formula adopted under decentralization.

“The argument would be that we should only be distributing monies based on enrollment plus specific student characteristics,” explained Moon. HISD, on the other hand, “uses small school subsidies and magnet programs and funds those separately from student characteristics.”

The district also continued to budget using average teacher salaries, something many districts do, rather than the actual teacher salaries depending at the school-level, marking another difference from the expected model under decentralization.

And the weights for the funding formulas, though they were intended to be revised over time, have not been significantly adjusted since they were put in place.

Moon struck a neutral tone. After all, as the report notes, “there are researchers who criticize the lack of quantitative studies that validate the theory behind decentralization” and one board member expressed skepticism about the theory’s roots in the business world and its applicability to education.

But because part of the district’s stated goals for adopting a more decentralized system was to create what it described as an equitable approach to resource allocation, understanding the actual implementation is a critical step in assessing its impact.

Implications for Practice

“This initial portion of the study demonstrates that decentralization was well implemented,” the report concludes, “but there are components that should be revisited to improve the intended outcomes of decentralization and [weighted student funding],” including the weighting structure.

How do principals themselves evaluate their experiences under the current decentralized system? Thursday’s post will examine their feedback.

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