Empowering local leaders means giving more flexibility to those closest to the kids so they can make tradeoffs with scarce resources and innovate with how they deliver services.
A strong, straightforward policy principle is that local leaders and families are best situated to make effective decisions with education resources and delivering services. However, state and district K-12 policies too often limit local discretion and instead defer to the prerogatives of policymakers and administrators who are further removed from the students. This often includes centralized spending decisions over:
- Staffing patterns
- Employee compensation
- Support services
- Administrative and operational policies
- Extracurricular offerings
CHAIN OF COMMAND
Control over school spending and school organization is shared by a succession of stakeholders at various levels of authority, with those further down in the succession generally possessing less control. State policymakers often limit local autonomy through mechanisms that require districts to sponsor certain programs and spend funds on broad categories such as operations, transportation, or facilities. It’s also common for districts to then further restrict school-level flexibility by distributing staff, not unrestricted dollars. These layers of restrictions lead to a situation where, according to a recent study from the American Institutes for Research, the average school principal has discretion over only 8 percent of their operational budget.
Chain of Command
FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES: DEVOLVING DISCRETIONS DOWNWARD
Local empowerment requires that the role of stakeholders who are further away from the kids be less oriented around top-down mandates and instead steered toward providing basic supports and ensuring transparency.
Make state funding streams and regulations more deferential to district leaders.
Because states are the primary authority in American education, they should empower district leaders by delivering most resources as unrestricted weighted student funding. They should also minimize their use of inflexible policies such as minimum staffing requirements, statewide salary schedules, or mandatory intervention programs and curriculum.
Maximize autonomy for schools.
Districts should further empower school leaders by adopting reforms similar to those needed at the state level. They should deliver the bulk of the resources through flexible, weighted student funding, and they should generally refrain from requiring school leaders to adopt specific staffing arrangements or compensation structures. District leaders also should not require principals to purchase district-centralized services such as reading programs, curriculum, or professional development.
Maximize freedom for families.
Families should be allowed to attend the school of their choice, both inside and outside their home district. This can be facilitated by both inter-district and intra-district open enrollment policies and further supported by portable funding.
Adopt bottom-up accountability.
Rather than allowing states and districts to evaluate schools and teachers based on top-down metrics such as standardized test scores, accountability should primarily come from families who vote with their feet. However, districts and states can help families make informed decisions by making academic performance and financial data readily available and by directly giving families a greater role over how schools are administered.
Teaching. Local stakeholders have a stronger voice over hiring and compensating teachers who serve their kids best.
Support services and administration. Local players can determine the types of support staff that are most needed for their context, such as guidance counselors, therapists, and classroom aids. They can also more easily develop specialized and innovative service models to meet the various needs of individual students.
Curriculum. Local stakeholders can adopt context-appropriate and more innovative curricula, such as specialized reading tracks or technology platforms.
Transportation, facilities, extracurriculars. Flexibility can allow for locally tailored decisions and tradeoffs in all these areas, i.e. procuring transportation more cost-effectively, multiple financing options for facilities maintenance and construction, or organizing athletics and after-school programs to better reflect resource priorities and child interests.
First enacted in 2013-2014 and implemented over the subsequent five years, California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) now delivers roughly two-thirds of all state and local education funding to districts as unrestricted weighted student funding. The state rolled more than 30 restricted grants that existed before the reform into the LCFF, making a majority of K-12 funding in California unrestricted.
Multiple recent studies and surveys have found wide support for LCFF among district superintendents and principals and found that the reform led to positive cultural shifts within districts where local leaders began to customize programs such as expanding school days and developing new services for disadvantaged students.
Hawaii adopted a weighted student formula (WSF) in the 2006-2007 school year, with the goal of increasing both funding equity and school-level flexibility. The state had already introduced several programs in past decades to boost school autonomy, and the adoption of WSF expanded upon those efforts by aiming to deliver at least 70 percent of state funds directly to schools. Hawaii also required that every school develop a community council with teachers, principals, and parents who had broad authority to develop school budgets.
Empirical evidence shows that Hawaii has significantly boosted funding equity through WSF and that the funding system has earned the support of the community. WSF has been successful because central administrators re-evaluate formula weights each year and have been committed to keeping the formula simple. Moreover, school leaders have continued to push for more flexibility over school funds — further showing that the WSF pathway has been effective.
Most school districts across the country provide school leaders with very little flexibility, with the average U.S. district giving principals control over only 8 percent of their operational budgets. However, a growing number of districts are adopting weighted student funding and delivering additional flexibilities to schools.
Denver Public Schools District funnels more than half its general fund revenues through a weighted formula, a model it has used since 2007. Denver provides its public schools with an array of autonomies, such as flexibility over staffing decisions, the ability to grant work-based stipends to some teachers, and the ability to opt out of district-provided professional development and instead purchase their own programs. It also allows well-performing schools to apply for “Innovation” and “Innovation Zone” status, whereby they can get even more flexibilities such as the ability to hire teachers with alternative certifications and change school hours.
Denver has used weighted funding since 2013 and has around 40 percent of its general fund budget in the formula. It affords its schools very broad autonomies over staffing arrangements, allows both work-based and performance-based stipends for teachers, and generally give schools a lot of options to opt out of central services like professional development and district curriculum in exchange for cash.
Interested in learning more about funding flexibility? Contact a member of yes. every kid. firstname.lastname@example.org.