As More Districts Create “Autonomous Schools,” They Need a Balanced Approach to District-Wide Services

We have written multiple posts in recent months about the spread of “autonomous district schools,” which occupy the middle ground between traditional district schools and charter schools. These models allow district schools to use some of the same freedoms as charter schools, while also remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services, like access to district facilities, transportation services, and enrollment systems. 

But, as we explain in our new report, “Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” districts vary widely — and confusingly — in their approaches. Some districts mandate which services their autonomous schools must use, while others create a structure for these schools to opt into or purchase certain district services. This can lead to a complicated balancing act between easily accessing these services and preserving schools’ autonomy to make decisions about how to best serve their students. 

three women school leaders sit around a tale with colorful writing and markers

Autonomous school leaders in San Antonio, TX: Regina Arzamendi (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Delia McLarren (Head of Schools, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Andrea Pitts (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy Primary)

Below are three lessons from our research that policymakers should consider when crafting autonomous school policies to improve the ways that districts relate to and support these schools:

Accessing district facilities can be a powerful incentive for autonomous district schools.

Facilities are a substantial cost for charter schools, which often lack access to taxpayer-funded facilities and, on average, spend about 10% of their per-pupil funding on facility space. Autonomous district schools, meanwhile, are typically housed within district-owned facilities. This arrangement eliminates one of the most important barriers facing school leaders who want to establish and operate a school with more decision-making power. However, accessing district facilities can also limit school leaders’ ability to make decisions about where their schools are located and whether a particular building provides an ideal setting for educating students. Districts interested in autonomous school policies, especially those involving external partners, need to consider how autonomous schools will be matched with facilities and what impact their location might have on other elements of school operations like transportation and enrollment.

Autonomous district schools can utilize district transportation services, but doing so can restrict their autonomy.

As school choice policies continue to spread across the country, more students are traveling farther from home to access schools, and many families must rely on school transportation services as a result. Most states require districts to provide school transportation services for at least some students in traditional public schools, but only 16 require the provision of such services for charter school students, meaning that charter schools typically do not provide transportation services or do so out of their own budgets. Limited transportation options can prevent families from truly having access to their full range of education options.

Many autonomous district schools can avoid this challenge because they often receive the same school transportation services as other district schools. But this also means that schools must operate within districts’ transportation schedules, limiting their ability to make decisions about the length and structure of the school day or school year. For example, Colorado’s “innovation schools” can apply for waivers from district rules, including school calendar policies. In the past, District 49, located south of Denver, granted calendar waivers to their innovation schools. However, logistical complications related primarily to transportation resulted in the district rolling back the approval of these waivers, and none of the district’s innovation schools currently operate with a calendar waiver. Districts pursuing autonomous school policies must be mindful of how students will get to these schools and, like with facilities, whether that will affect schools’ ability to make other decisions about how they operate.

Centralized enrollment practices provide a more streamlined approach to enrolling students, but school leaders are often hesitant to give up such an important autonomy.

Unified enrollment systems allow students to apply to public schools — including charter schools, autonomous district schools, and traditional district schools — within their district regardless of where they live, rather than attending their assigned neighborhood school. Where these enrollment systems exist, some or all charter schools may be required to participate. This can streamline complex application processes and increase school choice equity for families, while also reducing the need for individual charter schools to manage enrollment and providing an easier way for them to enroll more students.

At the same time, enrollment provides the basis for charter school funding and is an important part of how charter leaders engage with the families they serve. As a result, these leaders are often hesitant to give up control over how they recruit and enroll students, especially if it means relying on a district-controlled process. Because autonomous district schools fall under the purview of their local school district, they generally have limited autonomy over enrollment. While this is standard for a traditional district model, it may pose challenges for leaders of autonomous district schools who want to exercise greater control over their schools’ enrollment practices. Districts need to determine how students will be enrolled in autonomous schools, whether through choice, residence, or other factors, as well as what role, if any, school leaders will have in that process.

Accessing district services and supports can serve as a strong incentive for school leaders to work within the district context rather than pursuing an independent charter school, but doing so can also result in important limitations on school-based autonomy. Education leaders interested in pursuing autonomous school policies need to have thoughtful conversations about the extent to which schools will or will not have access to district services, as well as understand how the chosen approach will affect both entities.