The Decentralization Mirage

What can teacher-powered schools, where teams of teachers secure collective autonomy to make the decisions influencing school success, learn from prior school autonomy efforts? A lot!

In this Winter 1994-1995 issue of RAND Review, author Bruce Bimber concludes that decentralization–which “includes innovations like site-based management and school-based decisionmaking–is founded on the assumption that reducing bureaucratic controls will prompt teachers and principals to take greater initiative and to better tailor instruction to the needs of students. It has failed, the study says, not because the premise is flawed but because the true locus of power remains where it has always been–with school boards, central office staffs and state authorities.

Bimber found ‘remarkably little difference’ between decision making constraints at a spectrum of four schools in the study, which included the traditional, centralized school and the two “decentralized” public schools. Control over what is taught and who teaches it, over how money is spent and how discipline is administered, over the length of the school day and year, even over repairs to the physical school facilities remains for the most part outside the schools’ jurisdiction.

The main reason for the limited effects of decentralization is the inseparability of decisions. Linkages among budget, personnel, instructional, and operational decisions mean that “decentralized” authority ostensibly given school staff over one class of decisions has effectively been limited by centralized constraints on other classes of decisions. For example, a school might have discretion over the selection of supplementary textbooks, but this decision is dependent on how much money is available for educational materials, and discretion over that decision resides with the parent school district.”

This begs the question that each teacher team must consider: how much is one area of autonomy tied to others? This is an issue that presents itself over and over again in the book, Trusting Teachers with School Success. For example, “We got autonomy to create the school’s schedule, but the district’s transportation contract limits us.” Or, “We didn’t ask for evaluation autonomy, so we don’t have much influence over dismissal or recommendation for transfer, even if the teacher is not the right fit.”

The RAND Corporation study raises a very specific question: how much autonomy is it possible to get when funds are transferred through the school district? Some teacher teams have been able to unbundle more autonomy over time (e.g. freeing up more discretionary funding by asking for autonomy by line item), yet this process can be tedious. How much can your team negotiate/free up while securing an autonomy agreement? Are you willing to start a chartered school in order to get complete control of budget, as some teams have done?

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