Crisis often breeds opportunity, and Detroit's recent decision to shift the management of 10 high schools from the central school district to five-person school-based boards this fall is a promising sign that leaders are moving to make the most of the school system's woes.
And those woes are substantial. Only 1.2 percent of the graduates of the Detroit public schools are college- or career-ready, the system is facing an $83.9 million deficit, and it has lost more than 100,000 students over the past decade. An emergency manager has stepped in to try and stop the bleeding.
School-based management is a good place to start. During the 1990s, schools in the Massachusetts town of Barnstable on Cape Cod looked to the municipality to bail them out of a $2.7 million deficit. Instead of the usual bickering, the two worked out a solution that moved far more authority to the school-building level.
Leaders devolved power from the school district's central office to each school in the district. They then consolidated the business functions of the district's finance and human-resources departments into the municipal offices.
The results delighted elementary school Principal Frank Gigliotti. "The budget, pending bills, paid bills and the current balance all come right up on the computer. … If we save money, we can keep it; I can hire additional part-time math specialists."
Those additional math specialists have paid off. The Barnstable schools' performance on state tests has improved since the changes were implemented.
Most public schools have authority over about half of the funding they receive. In Barnstable, individual schools have authority for 80 cents out of every dollar. But that's nothing compared to the revolution that has taken place in the Canadian city of Edmonton.
Edmonton has a population of 1.1 million, and its public schools educate more than 80,000 students. School-based management was at the heart of a radical transformation that began during the 1970s.
Edmonton students are issued a "passport" that allows them to choose any traditional district school, a charter school or a private school (the province of Alberta pays two-thirds of the costs for students choosing to attend private schools). Schools that attract students thrive; those that don't close. (Five were closed in 2005 alone.) Since more than half of the students don't attend their "home school," they get subsidized passes for the city's transportation system.
You might expect that students would beat down the doors to get into private or charter schools, but Edmonton's traditional public schools competed and won. By 2005, there were only a handful of private or charter schools in the city. The others didn't all close; most actually asked to join the public system. "In Edmonton," former Superintendent Angus McBeath said, "the wealthy send their children to public schools."
Devolving authority to the school level is central to Edmonton's success. Goals and performance measures are determined centrally, but each school has the authority and resources to figure out how to achieve them. By 1996, individual schools were deciding how to spend 92 cents out of every education dollar.
It will take a long time for Detroit's schools to be like Barnstable's and Edmonton's, but devolving more authority to individual schools is a good way to begin the journey.