"Public schools can be great, they don't have to be mediocre and they don't have to be unresponsive," says William Ouchi, author of Making Schools Work.
Ouchi needs to make that point because most public schools, unfortunately, have been mediocre. A major reason: They've been compelled to serve the needs of politicians and district administrators, rather than students.
Success for public schools requires that schools become entrepreneurial. That can happen only when the politicians and administrators allow genuine empowerment of principals, teachers and parents. That means:
1) Let the dollars follow the students.
Make budgeting student-based — so that schools are only funded when they attract students. This encourages schools to think of students as customers, rather than a burden, and brings into play the marketplace dynamics that generate greater value for lower costs.
2) Allow open enrollment.
Let parents choose the schools their children attend. When school funding follows the student, and families are free to choose among different public schools, competition leads schools to improve. Research by Marcus Winters at the Manhattan Institute found that the performance of traditional public schools improved when they found themselves competing with charter schools. Competition between public schools would work similarly.
3) Empowerment schools should be charged for actual staff salaries, not the district average.
Recent papers published by the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution and the National Educators Association (NEA) noted that funding inequities arise in public-school systems because more experienced teachers, making higher salaries, tend to teach at higher-income schools. Charging schools the actual salaries of their teachers, rather than FTEs or district averages, would increase funding equity. Currently, low-income schools are compelled to subsidize the salaries of senior teachers at schools in high-income areas.
4) Eliminate restrictions on empowerment schools' budgeting.
Empowerment schools, to be such, must control their budgets. Currently, Clark County empowerment schools operate under restrictive $1,000 purchase limits on their credit cards. The only limit should be on the school's yearly budget. Empowerment schools should also be allowed to purchase goods and services without prior approval by central-office administrators. State law already requires empowerment schools to be free from district-level spending mandates. This provision must be enforced and expanded to include freedom from state-level mandates as well.
5) Allow empowerment schools to save money from one year to the next.
Currently, all public schools are under "use it or lose it" budget rules. Money not spent during the calendar year reverts back to the central office. This encourages wasteful spending.
6) Give empowerment schools control over facilities, maintenance, professional development, printing, food services, special education and transportation funds.
Allow the empowerment schools to purchase the services from the central office or from the private sector. The competition will encourage dollars to flow into classrooms instead of the central bureaucracy, as schools seek the best service at the best price. When schools become customers, the response of service providers to schools' needs will be more timely and cost effective. Since public schools are managed by college-educated professionals — many with doctoral degrees — there is little reason to assume they could not learn to handle the autonomy responsibly.
7) Give principals greater control over staff decisions and contracts.
CCSD's empowerment schools are allowed some relief from the union contracts, evident in the small merit bonuses allowed. Principals also have greater latitude in selecting school staff. However, principals still find it difficult to get rid of teachers who do not fit the empowerment school culture. Schools should be free to create their own pay scales, hire staff from outside the recruitment pool (including uncertified or alternatively certified teachers), offer larger bonuses and be allowed to lengthen the school day, or year, without approval from central office and teacher-union bureaucrats.
8) Expand empowerment statewide, to every public school.
All Nevada public schools should become autonomous charter or empowerment schools, where parents select the schools their children attend — and thus determine, in effect, which schools continue. Central-office administrators should focus on recruiting talented and entrepreneurial principals and operating efficient central vending services. Otherwise, they ought to keep "hands-off" all schools that thrive under such autonomy.
These recommendations can be boiled down to one principle: Districts should actually implement school-level empowerment. In exchange for accountability, Nevada school districts should give local public schools greater autonomy.
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.