by Sharon Deich, The C&J Blog | Cross & Joftus http://edstrategies.net | http://bit.ly/1cujJRP
March 11, 2014 :: Historically, decisions about spending and staffing for individual schools were made at the district level, with principals playing a relatively minor role in school level resource and budget decisions. More recently, however, the practice of granting principals autonomy to make decisions about how to use their resources—people, time, and money—has become a popular strategy for improving educational outcomes. This strategy has been adopted by districts such as Baltimore, Boston, New York City, Oakland, and Omaha. While many believe that principals are in the best position to make decisions about how to utilize resources at their buildings, questions remain as to how much control a district should retain and how much should be granted to principals and under what circumstances.
What we are learning from our work with districts as well as from our study of this issue is that there is no secret formula for successfully balancing responsibilities across district staff and building leaders. Instead, like many education reforms, the right balance depends upon a complicated set of factors that include the local political and social context; the appetite of the superintendent and of principals for this type of reform; as well as structures and practices in the district offices. That being the case, we offer several lessons from our work that can help districts as they seek to find their balance of autonomy and control.
Districts need to grant enough autonomy to principals to “make the juice worth the squeeze.” In order for principals to be good stewards of their resources, they need to invest precious time in developing budgets; comparing alternative scenarios for utilizing resources; gaining the support for any new approaches from their staff (and potentially from district leadership); and providing enough information to the district to ensure accountability. In one district where principals were granted autonomy for less than 10 percent of their budget, they made it clear that the administrative burdens associated with the budget flexibility outweighed the benefits of the autonomy since the pot of money over which they had control was not large enough to make meaningful changes at their schools. So how much is enough when it comes to local control of resources? To answer this question, we have reviewed a variety of district budgets and found that most districts looking to promote autonomy grant anywhere from 40% to 80% of their budget to principals. For example, Prince George’s County recently (A.D.*) went from a system where principals controlled 2% of their budget to a system where they now control over 50%. A similar percentage of budgets are controlled by principals in Oakland, where local control has been in practice for many years.
* smf: After Deasy
Districts are finding many ways to share responsibility for management of resources with principals. Some districts grant autonomy to building leaders who have demonstrated their capacity to manage well or have been in their position for a minimum number of years. Others start out by granting principals authority over a limited set of resources and over time expand the portfolio of funding that principals control. And a third group of districts grant budget autonomy to a limited number of schools within the district. Each of these approaches allows the district to test out this practice, learn from the experience, and find a balance that makes sense for their needs and circumstances.
Devolving budget authority does not necessitate the move to a weighted student formula. For many districts, the decision to provide principals more authority over budgets creates an opportunity to rethink how resources are divvied up across schools and student groups. Weighted student formulas are designed to drive resources to schools based on the number of students and the needs or characteristics of those students. While they are often linked to a strategy for devolving autonomy for decision making to principals, they are by no means a requirement. In fact, there are many ways for districts to grant principals decision making authority over resources without implementing a weighted student formula. For instance, Denver has several innovation schools where principals have control over budget decisions and in New Orleans, each Charter Management Organization sets its own parameters for principal autonomy. Our friends and colleagues at Education Resource Strategies, recently released a paper that presents a framework for helping districts weigh the considerations for moving to a weighted student formula. The Reason Foundation also has a good resource on this topic. The bottom line is that even without a weighted student formula, districts have multiple options for granting budget authority to principals.
In the coming months, we will continue to explore this issue and others related to the strategic use of resources. Stay tuned!
Read other C&J Blog posts and learn about partner Sharon Deich and our Finance and Sustainability practice area.
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