Schools and Communities Need More Autonomy

Schools and Communities Need More Autonomy

Date
Wednesday, September 14, 2016

This commentary was first published by The New York Times.

Just about everything in the way we deliver urban public education reinforces inequalities and works against school improvement. Seniority-based teacher assignment and “last in, first out” layoff policies make it nearly impossible to reward great teaching and remove ineffective teachers. The most experienced teachers and principals migrate to more affluent neighborhoods. School board and community politics make it nearly impossible for superintendents to make tough calls like replacing ineffective schools or negotiating labor contracts with real teeth.

District central offices too often try to overcome these constraints with top-down dictates that treat educators, schools and students like widgets in a system designed for sameness. As a result, our neediest students typically end up with the least experienced teachers, the most ineffective principals, unequal funding and less rigorous curriculum. Frustrated parents, teachers and principals move to the suburbs or to private schools. Those that can’t leave do the best they can to get by.

The Connecticut court was right: We have a broken delivery model that more money alone cannot fix. We need to radically rethink urban public education. We need to truly equalize funding by having state and local money follow students, with additional funding for more disadvantaged students. “Weighted student funding” models do this by sending a set amount per pupil to any public school a child attends.

All families deserve choices, not just the most advantaged. School leaders must be empowered to lead schools with a mission. They need to be able to hire teachers who believe in that mission, and they need control over their budget to serve their students well. Most public schools lack any real control today to innovate around their staffing, budgets and educational programs.

Every school should be expected to grow, get support and intervention, or be replaced by another promising set of educators. No school and promising approach should be abandoned based on “charter” or “district” distinctions. We need to be agnostic about labels and unwavering on finding evidence-based solutions.

These can’t be top-down solutions. The communities with low-performing schools need to be part of the plans to improve them — helping to choose models, working with school leaders and bringing their local assets to bear to support families outside the classroom. School boards that fail to act in the best interest of students should be completely reconfigured. Many states are experimenting with new governance models that temporarily give the state control over failing schools or that set requirements for local boards to focus on performance oversight of largely autonomous schools. Today’s urban public schools must be nimble, responsive, equitable and innovative. No more one size fits all solutions that offer no solution at all. 

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