Over the past 15 years, cities across the country have experienced rapid growth in the number of public charter schools serving their students. When implemented with fidelity, the charter formula – autonomy, choice, diversity of school designs, and real accountability –produces continuous improvements in school quality, with impressive student gains in charter schools serving high-minority, high-poverty populations.
Facing competition from public charters, urban school districts from Boston to Denver to Los Angeles began to look for ways to increase student achievement in their schools. Some attempted to spur charter-like innovation by granting traditional public school leaders more autonomy. District-run “autonomous” schools are a hybrid model – a halfway point between charters and traditional public schools. They’re still operated and supported by district employees, but they can opt out of many district policies and, in some models, union contracts.
The theory behind school-level autonomy is that students can achieve more if those who understand their needs best – namely, principals and teachers, not the central office – make the decisions that affect their learning. While the amount of autonomy afforded district run autonomous schools differs from district to district, quite a few have invested in this strategy. In this report – which is based on analysis of test scores from 2015 and 2016 and interviews with participants in Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles – we will examine different models, look at their results, and draw out lessons for other districts considering an autonomy strategy.