Photo: Flickr user Chris

Decentralization may be no silver bullet, but it does have its silver lining.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has been in the news a lot lately: A number of schools are at risk of a potential school takeover under the state accountability law HB 1842, despite great news earlier this week the district still faces a deficit in the coming year, and until this week there had been talk of revamping the magnet program this year. The HISD administration and school board certainly face some tough decisions. But is a massive top-down restructuring the best solution?

As an education policy researcher, I have been studying the decision made in the 1990s to decentralize HISD for the Houston Educational Research Consortium (HERC). HERC is a voluntary partnership between HISD and Rice University intended to support evidence-based decision-making in the city’s schools. In a decentralized school district, many funding and instructional decisions are made at the campus level, as opposed to being made by central administration; the theory is that the principal is in the best position both to identify their students’ needs and to decide how to meet those needs.

Our study looks at four things: How was decentralization implemented, how do principals describe their capacity, what was the impact on student achievement, and what was the impact on funding equity? This study is particularly relevant right now because recently announced changes clearly herald a shift towards a more centralized system in HISD. I point to standardized school start times, a clear example of a policy decision that reflects more central control, and the potential shift to a full-time equivalency (FTE) funding model as two examples. Under decentralization, the district moved to a per unit allocation, or weighted student funding model (WSF), wherein each school receives a base dollar per student, plus weights which are determined based on individual student characteristics, such as being an English Language Learner. This allows principals more control over their budget, which theoretically allows for innovation in staffing decisions. In contrast, an FTE model applies student-teacher ratios to projected enrollment levels to allocate campus funds, which can mean less flexibility in instructional decisions.

The first component of our study is now complete. We can describe how decentralization was implemented within HISD and identify the current strengths and weaknesses. At this point, I am comfortable saying that decentralization was not the silver bullet that would miraculously create a more level educational environment for all of our students. It was, however, a good idea based on theory.

There are many things about this kind of organizational structure that are positive; for instance, many principals within HISD have benefitted from the flexibility to craft their school around their students’ needs. Additionally, under this structure, we know that funding is distributed, at least in large part, based on the specific student population at each campus, with attention being paid to at-risk students, bilingual English Language Learners, and other identified categories.

But there have been consequences that are problematic as well. Because funding is based on student count and enrollment, some schools have simply grown too large. Other schools that have elected to remain small can’t afford certain standard support services such as a school nurse. In fact, Superintendent Richard Carranza used this as a justification for the return to a more standardized funding system in his recent State of the Schools speech.

But it seems to me the district is viewing the funding decision as an either/or situation, when in fact there is a lot of ground in between that should be considered. Nurses could be a central administration function; caps could also be placed on the size of a school.

Part of the problem is that, as often happens with policy implementation, some elements of a decentralized model were carried out completely, and others were not. As an example, in theory, there would not have been an additional allotment for magnet programs for so many years, because this additional funding serves to distort the distribution of funding based on student needs. Discussing the magnet program in Houston is fraught with tensions. But to claim that the existing decentralized model has failed when such programs have persisted outside the scope of the intended funding structure is not valid. And, as my colleague Jay Aiyer notes, the recently proposed solution to HISD’s magnet system was not without flaws either. The good news is, the district is delaying any action on the magnets pending further examination.

My research demonstrates that there are parts of the existing decentralized model that could be improved upon. There are also undoubtedly ways in which the district can take the best of the existing structure and integrate those facets into a new model. Like many complex problems in life, this is not a dichotomous decision – there is a continuum between a highly centralized and a highly decentralized school district. I do not believe there is a silver bullet for the challenges facing HISD. But I do believe there is a lot still to learn about the impacts of decentralization – just as I believe there are several ways the district can learn from its past to inform decision-making going forward. This week’s announcements suggest the district is planning to do just that.

Jodi Moon is a postdoctoral fellow with the Houston Education Research Consortium at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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