Category Archives: State Education Policy

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.

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How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

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. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

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

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

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Media: “The Iowa Caucuses Steer Our National Priorities. But Iowa’s Education Policies Are Bad for the Nation — and for Iowa” in The 74

I grew up in Iowa. I attended public schools in Iowa.

So it pains me to say this, but the Iowa caucuses are bad for education policy. As I lay out in a new column at The 74, the policies favored by an unrepresentative sample of Iowans have an outside influence on our national politics. That has distorting effects, and not in a good way:

When it comes to certain policy areas, such as farming and agriculture, it’s easy to see how an unrepresentative sample of Iowans would result in policies that were unrepresentative of the rest of the country. Our national farm policies are at least partly shaped by the fact that our presidential candidates must kowtow every four years to local interest groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau, where my father worked when I was a kid.

The same applies to presidential contenders crafting their education policies, meaning an unrepresentative sample of Iowans play a quiet but powerful role in shaping our national educational debate. But are the education policies favored by Iowans any good? Are they worth spreading across the country?

The short answer is no. On education, Iowa is falling behind the rest of the country.

In terms of education policy, Iowa is an outlier, and not in a good way. It’s time to give other states a chance to take the lead. Read my piece here.

Districts Pick Up State Slack on School Report Cards — But Shouldn’t Duplicate Efforts

As my colleagues noted yesterday, Denver leaders are currently hosting conversations about their local school rating system, called the School Performance Framework (SPF), and deciding whether they will abandon this local system in favor of Colorado’s state rating system.

Districts around the country are facing similar choices this year — whether to build, adopt, or abandon a local rating system — as states roll out new report cards. The federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, requires states to improve the way they rate schools. In response states created report cards with key performance data for every school in their state. But not all communities were satisfied with their state ESSA report card.

Some districts created — and others are currently considering — localized school rating systems to fill in the gaps. These are an enormous opportunity for school districts, but one with many risks if districts do not heed the lessons of the past and pay attention to today’s context. In the case of Denver, it’s clear that local options must be built carefully in order to survive shifting political contexts.

ESSA report cards promised to include more impactful data than required by ESSA’s predecessor No Child Left Behind. Yet the truth is many state report cards are no better than what came before. An April 2019 analysis by the Data Quality Campaign found that many state report cards still lack critical information — including the progress and growth of different student groups and students’ access to high-quality teachers — making it difficult for families and communities to understand if and how schools are serving their kids.

boy walking and balancing on a log with the header for the site "School Performance Frameworks" across

As school districts step in to create local versions of school report cards, the question is: will these local remedies provide a more complete picture of school quality or will they confuse parents and other stakeholders even more?

The answer: it depends. Continue reading

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 

Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 

While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

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