Proven Policies to Fix Failing Schools


Out-of-control costs, struggling students, failing schools. 

Welcome to urban America's public school system, which drives away parents who want their children to be prepared for the future. Recently, these failures have been increasingly highlighted by the flight from traditional K-12 schools to charter school programs. Charters are publicly funded schools that get less in tax dollars than conventional schools but have far more autonomy in creating and implementing curricula. A July 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, "Detroit Schools on the Brink," details how Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have lost tens of thousands of students to charter schools and suburban districts in recent years. This is due to DPS's graduation rate of less than 58 percent and overall track record of dismal student performance.

Similar problems plague most urban school districts in the United States, including Cleveland's, despite massively increased investments in school funding, smaller class size, teacher pay, and more. Cleveland's public schools currently face a $53 million budget deficit, an enrollment loss of approximately 40,000 over the last decade, and a scandalously low 54 percent graduation rate. The state of Ohio officially lists close to three-quarters of the district's schools as being on academic watch or in an academic emergency, the state's worst categories.

Cleveland's school system should look to New Orleans for guidance on how to turn things around. New Orleans has been on its heels economically for a long time, well before 2005's Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city's infrastructure, including school buildings. More than 100 schools were closed statewide in Louisiana as a result of the storm, displacing approximately 118,000 school-age children. In the wake of Katrina, state officials encouraged school choice by facilitating charters and giving administrators broad leeway to get schools operational, often in non-traditional settings.

[Article continues after video, Fix The Schools: Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey, episode 2]

Their innovations succeeded. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Louisiana's burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans' estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005.

Why are New Orleans schools succeeding? Because of these basic principles that can easily be adapted to many different circumstances.

The Decentralized Portfolio Management Approach. The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest-performing schools, and creating alternative opportunities for students in the least-productive schools.

Student-Based Budgeting. Most districts assign large amounts of money to existing schools regardless of enrollment. In student-based budgeting, funds are attached to individual students who can take that money directly to the public school of their choice. Special-needs students carry larger amounts of money, reflecting the extra help they will need. Most important, funding "arrives" at the selected schools in real dollars that administrators can use for whatever they want-more instructors, more technology, or more supplies.

Give Principals Autonomy And Accountability. Principals must be able to make decisions about how to spend resources in terms of staffing and programs. The more "unlocked" dollars a principal controls, the more autonomy that principal has over designing the school to meet the needs of the students in the school. And the more autonomy a principal has, the more accountable she should be held for success or failure.

End Residential Assignment and Embrace Open Enrollment. To help improve outcomes for students, families need to be able to choose between schools rather than be assigned to them based on location. This gives less-popular schools an incentive to improve performance and hence attract and retain families.

Close Low-Performing Schools and Redirect Kids and Resources. School districts should take a hard line: Close failing schools. Open new schools. Replicate great schools. Repeat as needed. As important, clear timelines for judging schools and closing them need to be adopted and stuck with.

Empower the Parents. Districts should restructure schools in which a majority of parents sign a petiton asking to convert the establishment into a charter.

Collective Bargaining Relief. School districts need to work toward collective bargaining reforms that allow individual schools to operate more like charter schools that are free from many of the rules and regulations governing employee management in district schools. Far from disenfranchising teachers and other staff, it will allow the best of their numbers to bargain effectively based on individual performance.

Seniority-Neutral Policies. Seniority-based layoffs do not consider teacher effectiveness, meaning that teachers who make vital contributions to school success can nevertheless be among the first to receive pink slips. Urban districts should move to a seniority-neutral layoff policy and work to develop a fair performance-based evaluation system that would give principals and superintendents concrete performance criteria to make decisions about which teachers are let go.

Budget and Funding Transparency. Urban school districts should be required to provide accounting data at the school level and to use actual cost data, not district averages (which often mask huge variations in expenditures). This accounting method will promote the equitable distribution of general education funding and help ensure that the recommended additional funding for low-income students and English learners actually is used for those students.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.