When it comes to resource allocation, there are two components to understanding what controls district and school resources. The first component traces every one of the dollars spent in order to determine who controls what is purchased. The second step unravels the barriers to schools changing the ways in which they use the resources they appear to "control." District leaders often are surprised to find they do not share the same views of how much control schools have. District leaders also learn how their departments unwittingly limit school options.
School leaders are frequently shocked to find out that district leaders believe they have more control over resources than they actually do. Although districts may think that schools have budget control, the actual flexibility schools experience is often defined so narrowly that that really have few options. Even in districts that have implemented versions of "school-based budgeting," schools will often have a very limited ability to make changes in staffing.
Districts might give schools "control" over their substitute teacher funds, instructional supplies, and equipment. Worse, the purported "control" frequently comes with specified governance structures or various approval processes that drain valuable group time and sap energy by debating marginal changes having little to do with instruction. This is why so many reformers argue that districts need to move to more complete solutions. Student-based budgeting is often cited as one such solution.
As schools begin to change the way they use staff to support their unique designs, districts will find they need to move toward giving schools dollars based on the number of students in their school instead of allocating funds based on specific staff positions. This change is important for management and equity reasons. Logistically, as more schools want to change the way they use staff, it becomes confusing to keep track of all the trading in and converting of staff. Trying to free up only certain funds for flexible solutions can create further complication and raises troubling equity issues.
Giving schools more autonomy does not guarantee improved achievement automatically. Without incentives to improve school performance and an understanding of alternative possibilities for organizing resources, increasing school-level control over resources usually results in limited change. Worse, the first changes that schools tend to make in the use of resources can have very little to do with improving the achievements of students, and more to do with the needs of adults.
As districts move to create flexibility in the use of resources, they will need to ensure that schools meet legal and funding requirements. The district may, for example, encourage schools to combine staffing resources from special programs, including bilingual, special education, and Title I, in order to create a more integrated, individualized education for every student.
In order to support more comprehensive programs and still be able to ensure that schools are meeting the specific needs of special education students, the district will need to set up a dedicated system for accountability integration. Schools will need proactive district action and guidance to make many of the more significant changes in resources and organization. In some cases, dramatic improvement in achievement will require schools to make difficult or large-scale personnel changes.
Gradual changes in staff due to attrition may not help a school implement new strategies quickly enough for them to notice desired changes in outcomes and improvements. It may prove necessary for a school to alter the teaching staff mixture and hire more academic teachers and fewer non-academic teachers and support staff — or the school may decide to eliminate instructional aides and invest the dollars in professional development or certified reading instructors instead.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three books; It's Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield December, 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge February 26, 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). Please visit his website at www.drmattlynch.com for more information.