Incomplete Reform in Baltimore

Five years ago, Baltimore City Public Schools seemed on the brink of a breakthrough. The district had been freed from mayoral control after more than a century, and a high-energy superintendent was leading bold moves to de-emphasize central administration, give schools greater autonomy, and engage families in a revitalized portfolio of educational choice. Suspensions were down, and graduations were up.

But today, progress seems to have stalled. Fewer than half of the principals at the heart of the decentralized reform strategy remain on the job. Bureaucratic barriers to school autonomy and improvement remain, from costly contract driven funding obligations to middle-management practices that limit school budget flexibility.

It is clear that moving from a centralized school system focused on stability to an innovation-minded system of autonomous schools requires more than pulling a few policy levers. To get the full benefits of a decentralized system of schools, reform leaders must make clear commitments to educators, enforce these by eliminating administrative control functions that create ambiguity, and curtail central office control of funds.

Whether this is achieved by granting charter autonomy more broadly, or by transforming district administrations, these changes are critical.

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