More School Districts Move toward “Recovery-style” Model for Greater School Autonomy

The state of Louisiana sparked a paradigm shift in education when it created the New Orleans’ Recovery School District in 2004. RSD is now almost entirely composed of charter schools. School principals gain autonomy over budget, staff, and curriculum while central office staff focus on addressing school failure. This experiment has delivered encouraging results.

Just a few years after RSD was formed the district began to show sizable gains in academic achievement. Since 2007 the percent of students performing at grade-level on state assessments has more than doubled. These results, and more generally the growing demand for charter enrollment, have prompted several districts around the U.S. to introduce reforms that are based on autonomous schools and streamlined central offices.

In 2013, in response to consistent underperformance in Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS), the Kansas Department of Education — with help from CEE-Trust and Public Impact — produced a plan to take control of the KCPS district. The plan proposes to replace the district office with a Community Schools Office (CSO) that would oversee performance of the city’s public schools and hold them accountable for student outcomes, as well as assuring that schools have funding, facilities, and transportation. The CSO would not actually run schools, instead handing this power to an array of non-profits, with a transitional authority responsible for operating schools until enough high-quality independent nonprofit organizations can take over.

The CSO is a step in the right direction for KCPS. It is a response to the increasing desire for school choice that gives genuine authority to school operators allowing them to respond more quickly and effectively to student needs and parent demands. Meanwhile, the presence of CSO monitoring and reporting will provide parents and students with valuable information about schools performance.

Memphis is further along in the reform process. In 2010 the Tennessee Department of Education launched Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD has jurisdiction over 15 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville for the 2013-2014 school year. Ten schools are charters, with the remaining six directly operated by ASD but with charter-like autonomy. The district’s strategy, just like in New Orleans, is to devolve authority and increase accountability.

ASD took over an additional six schools in 2013 that will begin operation in 2014-2015. Up to 13 more schools may be added by 2016. The presence of waitlists for enrollment indicates that parents support the program and that further expansion is called for.

Alabama, unlike Kansas and Tennessee, does not have a law allowing the authorization of charter schools. However, the Birmingham Board of Education has submitted a waiver request to the state asking to allow five schools in Birmingham’s Woodlawn Innovation Network (WIN) charter-like independence. If passed, WIN schools will have power over hiring and firing, budget allocation, curriculum, and the school calendar.

Like Birmingham’s WIN, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is pursuing a unique type of reform. In 2012 the board reached an agreement on a public/private partnership with Project Leadership and Investment for Transformation, or Project LIFT. The agreement allowed nine schools to open in 2013 and operate independently from the district’s central office. LIFT principals have power over hiring and firing, compensation structure, budgeting, and the school calendar.

After just one year of being fully operational, all LIFT schools met or exceeded growth expectations.

One such school, West Charlotte High, saw a 15 percentage point increase in the graduation rates from 2012 to 2013. Additionally, LIFT schools have expanded student access to opportunities such as year-round schooling, summer session classes, and science and technology courses.

With New Orleans RSD posting consistent improvements in student achievement it isn’t surprising to see other districts pursuing similar reforms. Movement towards greater school autonomy in school districts across the nation is an encouraging sign for anyone who wants students to have access to the best education possible. Self-governing schools are better able to tailor their spending choices, curriculum, and instructional design to meet the needs of students. Perhaps more importantly schools are held responsible for the results of their decisions. Consistently underperforming schools cannot escape blame by pointing to district-level mandates or restrictions. As more students have the chance to attend such schools fewer students should fall victim to the usual game of pass-the-buck.

This column originally ran on the Friedman Foundation’s EdChoice blog.