Over time, principals have lost influence over hiring, staffing, standards, and even key budget decisions in their schools. School districts, which exist to support schools, now control almost all of the funds used in education. Districts, in turn, are constrained in their use of funds by the terms they negotiate in collective bargaining agreements, as well as by state statute and case law. School leaders learn to “work the bureaucracy” to get what they need out of the system.
Reforms that reduce the power of the district office and put increased power at the school site (whether in the hands of the principal, a site council, or some other power structure) can be summarized as “decentralization” reforms. These approaches aim to decrease the bureaucratic weight of the system and put school leaders in a better position to deploy resources for student learning. (Note: for more information, see “Where Does the Money Go” in the “Success” section.)
Perhaps the most well-developed example of decentralization is Oakland, California. In 2005 this troubled district reached an acute fiscal crisis: through mismanagement, the district found itself with debts it could not pay and that the county office of education had failed to notice. The district turned to the state for a bailout, and as a condition of the low-interest loan the school board agreed to place the district under a state-appointed administrator.
Under state administration, Oakland Unified embarked on a decentralization strategy of unprecedented scope, moving control over funds from district employees to school principals. The theory behind decentralization is that decisions are usually best-informed when they are closest to where they will be implemented. Changing from a centralized budgeting and control model (that is, where a powerful central district office makes most of the decisions) to a decentralized one involves profound changes. Such changes require one-time costs for hiring and firing, modifications to information technology systems, and the like.
The plan enjoyed considerable support from national foundations (Gates, Broad, Dell), but the district lacked a fundraising team to coordinate local support. Full Circle served that function on a temporary basis, helping to develop the funding “pitch,” a strategy for local fundraising, and a partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation to provide fiduciary services.
Full Circle efforts helped attract $26 million in privately raised funds, as well as Federal support. Oakland became California’s fastest-improving district for the subsequent six consecutive years.