School districts adjust to prevailing circumstances to promote autonomy, responsibility, and positive change.

By Carrie Stewart

Much of Afton’s work in recent months has been toward providing principals and teachers at schools with discretion over a relatively higher proportion of total district spending. This in turn allows individual schools more flexibility and discretion in allocating resources that at most districts are already strained.

We’ve collaborated on work related to three distinctly different large urban school districts in the last year. Each project focused on how best to enable school improvement and in some cases, support school redesign. All of them rely in some part on changing the degree of autonomy that school-based decision-makers have—that is, principals and teachers.

Each experience gave us more exposure to the delicate balance that needs to be maintained when the objective is to promote equity and strengthen the connection between academic strategy and fiscal strategy. Through our work, we strive to uphold district-wide standards, promote school autonomy, and support student achievement.

School autonomy in resource allocation decisions is broadly recognized as an opportunity to promote reform and improve student outcomes. It gives the people closest to student needs the power to make decisions about how to fill those needs.

But granting fiscal autonomy is not the only measure necessary to achieve school improvement. Nor is it an automatic success. At Afton, we’ve learned some important lessons in these three district collaborations. The most important is that assigning more discretion and relatively larger budgets to school principals also requires providing to them the tools and training in how to best design educational programs that work—that is, school design and instructional strategy.

It also means developing funding allocation models based on enrollment, available resources, and the specific needs of the student body. And schools would benefit from establishing success measures that are thoughtful and attainable, so they can be monitored and held accountable for the decisions delegated to them. Clear communication is needed from and between financial and operational personnel and their principals and teachers—a fundamental integration of finance and academics that has been sorely lacking in public education, and which Afton seeks to promote in all the work we do.

Without these aids, districts would encourage autonomy without providing the necessary skills, examples, tools and training to succeed. That’s risky.

Our recent collaborations with larger public school districts provide interesting examples of how changes to school-based fiscal autonomy can drive school improvement. In our work with Chicago Public Schools on its student-based budgeting initiative, the funding formula allows dollars to follow a student uniformly across all school types, in concert with a uniform accountability structure for gauging school performance. We have also seen first-hand the critical importance of training principals on thoughtful ways to use funds to fulfill student needs.

Resource allocation decisions can go both ways: a review of the alignment between fiscal and academic strategy can sometimes suggest adjustments toward more centralization, as was the case at St. Paul Public Schools, where Afton partnered with the district this past winter. The district had already supported substantial fiscal autonomy at the individual school level for many years. The result was that different schools had made different decisions about their school designs over time, some investing in technology and others in arts or other programs. In recent years, however, technology has become an integral part of any school design, and the historical autonomy provided to schools had resulted, unintentionally, in inequity of technology access for students, depending on which district school students attend.

With St. Paul Public Schools looking to implement personalized learning in all of its schools with designated tax-payer support, the district may pull back some autonomy from schools to implement technology device standards for all schools, ultimately ensuring equitable student access to technology. School-based design decisions could continue; the change is that it would be within the parameters set by the new device standards.  There will be a clear focus on school-level personalized learning plans and a roll-out that will prioritize staff receipt of devices in advance of students.

We saw a still different situation in our work with the Missouri Board of Education’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MoDESE). Afton contributed a proposed funding model for public schools in Kansas City as part of a project with CEE-Trust and Public Impact. CEE-Trust’s report for MoDESE offered recommendations to guide potential state intervention into unaccredited school districts. It advocated restructuring the school funding model to support this intervention, particularly in Kansas City.

Again in this case, Afton’s work is helping to promote autonomy in decision-making for individual schools, not simply by announcing a principle of autonomy and establishing it, but by showing how funding models can support creativity and innovation in school design. We proposed a phased approach, with support available from a central office to guide schools and assess their performance over time.

With the report’s only having been published on February 14, 2014, much work remains; but in March the Missouri Board of Education decided to move forward on plans to support and intervene in chronically underperforming districts.

Every aspect of Afton’s work involves thoughtful and informed review of a specific district’s situation. We believe that in mid-size and larger public school districts, offering more decision-making to the educators—principals and teachers—optimizes their ability to achieve great results, as long as it is connected to overarching academic strategy. The key to success is to give principals and teachers not only resources, but also school design supports, clear and aligned standards, financial management tools, and measures for tracking progress.

About the author

Carrie Stewart is CEO and co-founder of Afton Partners, which helps school districts and charter management organizations to better align resources to achieve stability and sustainability, so they can improve student outcomes. Carrie is based in Chicago.