North Carolina’s Site-Based School Management Program Is Faulted

Published December 1, 2007

A site-based management program implemented in Wake County, North Carolina gives school principals too much power, according to a comprehensive investigation by a team of independent auditors.

But other recent reports note the approach has worked elsewhere, suggesting the real problem is the North Carolina program doesn’t give families enough choice among schools.

The $215,000, 400-page report, “A Curriculum Management Audit of the Wake County Public School System, Raleigh, NC,” was conducted under the auspices of Phi Delta Kappa and released September 5.

The report recommended the Wake County school district tighten its “very liberal” policy on site-based decision-making, claiming principals have too much autonomy. The report concluded, “site-based decision making has created inequalities among schools.”

One of the chief complaints in the report is that fundraising by parent and booster groups differs from school to school by hundreds of thousands of dollars, allowing some principals to create programs or purchase equipment other schools lack. The report seems not to recognize that the point of site-based management is to allow schools to be different, hence the allegations of inequality.

National Implications

Although the report addresses the unique system of site-based management in Raleigh, it has value for other school districts involved in or contemplating this type of management system. In many ways, the report describes how not to operate under site-based management.

In the purest form of site-based (or school-based) management (SBM), money and accompanying decision-making powers are transferred from the school district’s central office to individual schools–where site committees, consisting of the principal, parents, teachers, and students (in secondary schools), are enabled to better operate the schools according to students’ needs.

The money the schools receive is based upon weighted student funding (WSF)–an algorithm that distributes funds equitably according to the different needs of students in each school.

The acid test of SBM is how much power and money is actually transferred to the individual schools. Since SBM enables schools to be different, effectiveness is enhanced if students are allowed to choose which school they attend.

Many Obstacles

The crux of the problem is how to transfer power to local schools within a web of federal regulations, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and special education rules, state regulations covering almost all aspects of school operations, entrenched local school board bureaucracies, and restrictive teacher labor contracts.

The Raleigh report serves as a reminder to other school districts that successful SBM requires a great deal of preparation, commitment, and cooperation among disparate interests–all while making sure students’ educational welfare is the highest priority.

Most principals believe that to effectively lead their schools they must have sufficient discretionary powers to run them–such as whom to employ and fire and how to spend school funds. However, they are seldom given such discretion.

According to “The Autonomy Gap: Barriers to Effective School Leadership,” a 2007 report from the American Institutes for Research, most principals encounter a sizable gap between the extent and kinds of authority they need to be effective and the authority they actually have. Unanswered in “The Autonomy Gap” report is how qualified principals are in terms of training and attitude to perform successfully as their schools’ CEOs.

Future Possibilities

When done right, however, weighted student funding wedded to school-based management can result in better education for students. It has already proven successful in several school districts, such as Houston, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Prince William (Virginia).

The authors of “Weighted Student Formula: Putting Funds Where They Count in Education Reform” conclude, “we believe that [weighted school funding] systems deliver the most benefits when a very high percentage of a district’s budget is decentralized.”

In another report, “Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance,” a diverse 70-member panel of K-12 leaders backed weighted school funding. That report, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, draws a clear conclusion:

“By installing a system where funding follows each child according to his/her needs and school leaders are given the autonomy to make decisions, we can demolish many of the barriers to equity already in place and create a brand new school financing system, one in which schools compete to hire the best teachers and to attract the hardest to educate students, and in which they are free to try new and dynamic solutions to ensure that all of their students succeed.”

Richard G. Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina. He is the author of School Based Management: A Detailed Guide for Successful Implementation (National Educational Service, September 1991).

For more information …

“A Curriculum Management Audit of the Wake County Public School System, Raleigh, North Carolina,” by a panel of 23 experts in cooperation with Curriculum Management Systems, Inc., September 5, 2007:

“The Autonomy Gap: Barriers to Effective School Leadership,” by Steven Adamowski, Susan Bowles Therriault, and Anthony P. Cavanna, American Institute for Research, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, April 2007:

“Weighted Student Formula: Putting Funds Where They Count in Education Reform,” by Bruce S. Cooper, Timothy R DeRoche, William G. Ouchi, Lydia G. Segal, and Carolyn Brown, Education Working Paper Archive, University of Arkansas, June 5, 2006:

“Fund the Child: Tackling Inequity & Antiquity in School Finance,” by a panel of 70 experts, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, June 2006: