The Innovations That Charter Schools Were Supposed to Spur Are Finally Taking Root

Remember way back when charter schools were new and people thought that their innovations — and lessons from those innovations — would transfer to traditional districts, and all schools would improve? Then for the next two decades, nothing even remotely like that seemed to happen?

Today, policies in several states allow for autonomous districts schools, inspired, in part, by charter schools. Sometimes called “in-district charters,” these new models allow districts to use some of the same freedoms that public charter schools enjoy while remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services. Autonomous district schools are cropping up all over the country, including Springfield, MA; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and Los Angeles, CA — you can learn more about them in our new resource released last week.

Map of districts around the country experimenting with autonomous district schools, sometimes called "in-district charters"

A recent report by PPI suggests that when autonomous district schools benefit from enough autonomy, they can outperform traditional public schools. Although this report shows that autonomous district schools in the regions studied do not perform as well as charters, early evidence indicates that these types of schools can be a promising strategy for improving student outcomes.

Why are these schools gaining traction in such diverse geographies? Through autonomous schools, districts can:

  • Utilize the same freedoms that charters have enjoyed to enable educators to innovate and make decisions that better serve the diverse needs of students and families;
  • Bring programmatic decision-making closer to schools; 
  • Retain students and families who might otherwise enroll in charter schools (thereby keeping enrollment and financial resources inside the district);
  • Unleash the creative potential of the large pool of diverse leaders within districts; and
  • Expand the reach of talented leaders to more students and retain these leaders in the district.

Tresha Ward, Lina Bankert, and I spent much of the last two years supporting the design and launch of autonomous district schools across the state of Texas, in Denver, and in St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen, we are excited about the potential of these types of schools to improve outcomes for students. But we also know that doing this work well is difficult: it requires significant skill-building and support for district principals and strong and unwavering support from district leadership and school boards. 

We see five key contributors to the success or failure of these initiatives that we will explore in a series of blog posts over the next couple of months:

  1. Autonomy: Give schools as much autonomy as possible around functions closest to the classroom (e.g., staffing, materials, professional development, and use of time).
  2. Talent: Leading an autonomous school is very different from a typical building principal role, so even fabulously talented leaders need a lot of support to build new skills and shift their mindset. This role is not a good fit for everyone.
  3. Central Support: District central office support for this work can be very targeted and rely on a small team, but this team needs to have the power to efficiently clear obstacles (of which there will be many).
  4. Engagement: Extensive stakeholder engagement can make the conversion of traditional district schools into autonomous schools a big win for the district, staff, and community. Lack of engagement can erode trust.
  5. Governance: Independent governance is a key to driving toward quality outcomes and maintaining the autonomies that have been granted. But for most district principals, managing a board is far outside their experience. Autonomous school leaders will need a lot of capacity building to do this well. 

With the right talent selection processes and supports, district autonomous schools represent a significant opportunity to use the best learnings from the charter movement and offer strong options that truly meet the needs of all students and families.

Stay tuned for future posts in this series, which will explore each of these five areas. You can follow along at #AutonomousSchools.