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Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools

Kelly Robson
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess
Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

Cover image for Bellwether publication Staking Out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools February 2020

Autonomous school policies are becoming increasingly prevalent in school districts and states, and currently exist in 24 states nationwide. These policies provide school leaders with greater decision-making power over their budget, staffing, or curriculum and sometimes include governance innovations, such as when a district delegates operational authority to an independent nonprofit.

Our colleagues recently published a deep dive into the autonomous school policies being implemented in San Antonio, Texas. However, that’s just one example. Across the nation, autonomous school policies vary widely in terms of their goals, the flexibility they provide to schools, and the ways in which schools are held accountable for student performance. In some states, for example, autonomy is available only to schools meeting certain performance thresholds. In others, any school is eligible to apply for autonomy. Some states explicitly name the policies from which all autonomous schools are exempt, while others allow school leaders to choose which policies to waive. 

It’s a diverse and complex landscape, and there’s very little research on the effectiveness of different design choices. "Staking Out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools" provides state and local leaders with key insights into the various contours of autonomous school policies. Two research briefs drawing from the full report provide specific summaries of Recommendations for State Leaders and Recommendations for Local Leaders. The report also surfaces lessons and recommendations from in-depth Profiles of Autonomous School Policies in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

While policymakers’ choices will vary based on each state’s unique context, we identify three unifying principles that should guide both state and local leaders as they work to define and implement autonomous school policies:

  • Align policy design around both autonomy and accountability to the goals of the policy.
  • Support the implementation of autonomous school policies in order to build strong local strategies and help leaders develop the specific knowledge and skills necessary for successful implementation.
  • Establish strong data collection and evaluation plans from the outset to measure progress toward goals and facilitate improvement.

These principles, coupled with the framework and detailed recommendations discussed throughout the Executive Summary and full report, can help guide the decision-making of state and local education leaders as they develop and implement autonomous school policies. 

Download the Executive Summary here or read it in the viewer below.

For more on autonomous district schools, watch our explainer video