Give Utah principals more authority over their schools

Utah’s public school system has become top-heavy. At Sutherland, we have advocated for a more bottom-up approach, particularly one that is parent-driven.

Over at The Atlantic, Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute makes a strong case for giving principals more authority over their schools. As he says, “an executive’s authority should be commensurate with his or her responsibility.”

Contrary to this common sense principle, principals have far less authority than they do responsibility, as many decisions about their schools are made on the federal, state and district levels. Finn argues that “we give our school heads the responsibility of CEOs but the authority of middle-level bureaucrats.”

And he expounds: 

A school principal in 2012 is accountable for student achievement, for discipline, for curriculum and instruction, and for leading (and supervising) the staff team, not to mention attracting students, satisfying parents, and collaborating with innumerable other agencies and organizations.

Yet that same principal controls only a tiny part of his school’s budget, has scant say over who teaches there, practically no authority when it comes to calendar or schedule, and minimal leverage over the curriculum itself. Instead of deploying all available school assets in ways that would do the most good for the most kids, the principal is required to follow dozens or hundreds of rules, program requirements, spending procedures, discipline codes, contract clauses, and regulations emanating from at least three levels of government – none of which strives to coordinate with any of the others.

Mr. Finn then explains some of the problems this imbalance creates and suggests three underlying causes of the imbalance:

First, a dysfunctional and archaic governance structure for public education that pays homage to “local control” yet turns into bureaucratic management of dozens or hundreds of schools from burgeoning “central offices,” rather than vesting any real control at the level closest to teachers, students, and parents. Setting policy for that system, typically, is an elected school board that itself has grown dysfunctional, particularly in urban America, as adult interest groups manipulate who serves on it. Atop all this sit state and federal agencies – multiple agencies at each level – as well as (in many states) county or regional administrative units.

Second, we’ve layered so many responsibilities on our schools that the teaching and learning of basic skills and essential knowledge has all but vanished under efforts to rectify injustice, foster diversity, provide multiple services to kids with varying needs, prevent drug abuse, adolescent pregnancy and obesity, forge character, keep children off the streets, ensure physical fitness, and observe a near-infinity of special events, holidays, and interest-group enthusiasm.

Third, every time something goes wrong anywhere, a blizzard of new rules and procedures descends upon the school’s obligations, lest that mishap recur anywhere else. Whether it’s bullying or a playground accident, an unwanted intruder or a disgruntled parent, a kid who doesn’t get into a particular course or a library book that offends someone, the checklists, regulations, and prohibitions multiply.

You can read the full article here.