Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.
However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors.
The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.
Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report:
- Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
- Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans