Sunday, April 26, 2009 | A quiet push from the school board to empower schools to choose their own strategies to boost scores and help students could dramatically alter the balance of power in San Diego Unified. It is an old idea that has cycled in and out of vogue as superintendents come and go and school boards are elected and rejected. And it plays on a familiar complaint: that the biggest problem in San Diego Unified is San Diego Unified.

“The enemy is always San Diego Unified,” said school board member John de Beck. He recently proposed an even more severe form of decentralization: encouraging coastal schools to secede from the district. “When schools have a problem, they point and they say, ‘If it weren’t for all the idiots down there, you’d have a better program.’”

Decentralizing typically gives schools more power over their fates. It is a vague term that can mean anything from allowing schools to pick different textbooks or opt to do their own teacher training to handling their own budgets or reshuffling their schedules to meet their own needs.

But shifting decisions back to schools raises a battery of new issues. Few details have been decided. Consultants hired by Superintendent Terry Grier have posed more than a dozen questions to the board: Who will actually make the decisions at schools — principals or school councils? How will they be chosen? And how will they be held accountable if schools flounder on their watch?

“Are you going to fire them?” school board member Katherine Nakamura asked board president Shelia Jackson in a heated argument at a recent meeting. “You get somebody running a school and you can’t hold them accountable. I think it’s bogus.”

The new school board majority of Jackson, Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans has spearheaded the idea. They want to give schools more power to choose their strategies, but it is unclear exactly how much control schools would have over their budgets, staffing, curricula and teacher training. Barrera said decentralizing would protect schools from the revolving door of superintendents and reforms that are here today and gone tomorrow, building school reforms from the bottom up.

“You get a new superintendent with a new set of ideas and whatever has been happening at the schools — we start all over again,” Barrera said. “That is what we have been doing. It is a system based on accountability and results that have produced no results.”

The board wants to try out the plan at two “clusters” — the group of schools that lead into a single high school — before expanding it to other areas. It is an idea that has been popular across the country and the globe: Boston has a crop of “pilot schools” that set their own budgets, staffing, curricula and calendars. Denver gives some more freedom to schools that apply to be “Beacon” schools. “Decentralization” has long been on the lips of reformers from Sweden to the United Arab Emirates. And now San Diego is dreaming up “Schools of Excellence” that would hatch their own agreements with the school district.

“It is such a buzzword that even schools in small remote nations in Asia feel this compulsion to ‘decentralize,’” said Chris Bjork, who leads the education department at Vassar College. “If you don’t do it you’re seen as being behind the times.”

But decentralizing is not a new idea. Nor is it a panacea. San Diego Unified has volleyed between centralizing and decentralizing under different superintendents over the decades, with varying methods and results. Though the ideas are mentioned in existing school district policies and the teachers union contract, they have never been set in stone.

“It ultimately comes down to political will,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “It is much harder to have a lot of people involved. Dictatorships are easy. Trains ran on time when Mussolini was in charge of Italy — but it was a really bad example of leadership.”

Archived articles from the Union-Tribune report that Superintendent Tom Payzant slashed the central offices in 1991 and formed “mini school boards” to handle budgets and curricula at individual schools; teachers boycotted those teams under Bertha Pendleton in 1994 and parents sparred with teachers over their powers in 1996; Alan Bersin set a single curriculum and lassoed federal money to use for central reforms but freed schools to budget as they wished earlier in this decade; Carl Cohn divvied up the school district into five areas and gave them more power and was criticized for inconsistencies between the different regions.

“The idea is, if you’ve got the right teachers and the right leader, how do you free them up from the bureaucratic obstacles to realize its goals?” said Cohn, who said he used a centralized model to propel Long Beach schools forward but opted for the opposite in San Diego to ease tensions with employees and parents. “But if you don’t feel you have the right people, a leader is not likely to turn to that model.”

School autonomy became an especially explosive issue under Bersin, whose move towards a single set of reforms nearly prompted La Jolla High to secede from the school district as a charter school — it now enjoys some autonomy over curricula and textbooks — and spurred a student walkout at Johnson Elementary, where parents protested the removal of a prized reading program. Yet Bersin earned national praise for boosting test scores.

“We are going around in circles here,” said Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Now San Diego Unified has a new paradox: Superintendent Terry Grier has pressed for more consistency and centralization as a way to ensure that schools are equitable, such as installing a common interview system for principals, encouraging schools to use a specified set of tests, and revamping school budgeting so that principals have less power over which positions they can cut or replace. But he answers to a school board that wants to put decisions firmly back in individual schools.

They agree on one crucial thing: That schools that are struggling cannot be left in the lurch. Failing to improve scores and other outcomes for students could mean that the central office has to step in and intervene, the board and the superintendent agreed in a workshop. But how that works and what the standards are for success remain to be decided.

“What you have to have centralized is your accountability,” Grier said. “Who do you hold accountable and what do you hold them accountable for?”

Experts disagree over whether decentralizing is helpful or harmful to schools. There is also debate over which tasks should be centralized — and how.

Centralizing the ways that schools plan to teach reading or curb dropouts can help ensure consistency and equity across schools, but overdoing it can cramp innovation and local planning, resulting in McSchools that are disconnected from what different communities want or need. Decentralizing can free schools to create homegrown solutions — such as the Webster Elementary program that slashed suspensions and boosted scores — but extreme decentralization can result in a motley assortment of strategies that can exacerbate inequalities between schools, especially if the decision-makers at schools lack the training or expertise to make good decisions.

“We don’t need 25 different reading programs in the school district. You need a basic design that has been agreed upon, and then you can make choices within that. It’s like if you were going down the aisle at the supermarket — you can only have three or four kinds of cereal that don’t have too much sugar in them,” Cordeiro said.

Bringing decisions down to individual schools is part of the appeal of charter schools, which are publicly funded by run by their own independent boards. Such schools have multiplied in San Diego. But their freedom is also one of the risks inherent for charters, which typically go it alone on the business tasks that central offices have traditionally managed. The problems and the potential in decentralization are evident in the mixed results among charter schools, which range from the acclaimed High Tech High to the financially floundering Cortez Hill Academy.

“Charter schools are the most radical version of decentralization,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California. Decentralization works if school staffers are trained well and have access to good information, she said. “I’m just not sure there is one best way to educate all kids. I don’t think that all schools should be the same.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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