The Pinellas Education Foundation has opened an important debate about who should control the purse strings at each public school. Putting principals fully in charge may create a new sense of urgency and ownership for learning, but it is no panacea and requires, at a minimum, extensive training.
As a few School Board members already have signed the foundation's "Case for Change" petition, interim superintendent Julie Janssen is moving at an appropriately measured pace. "It's worth looking at," she says, "but I also think we have to start with all our school principals and help them understand how the money and the budget works. I'd like to hear their thoughts."
The approach, which educators call "site-based management," has become a political cause celebre in Florida ever since an elected superintendent in Okaloosa County tried it and FCAT test scores rose dramatically. That former superintendent, Don Gaetz, is now chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.
The Okaloosa experience is clearly worth examination and, maybe, emulation. But the foundation's case would be more persuasive with a more sober analysis. Its white paper alternately calls Okaloosa "a national model" and an "amazing success story" and Gaetz a "K-12 education trendsetter" by way of insisting that Pinellas adopt "the entire proven model which Okaloosa has pioneered."
Such hyperbole may be intended to attract political attention, but researchers are generally more modest in their assessments. As one Northwestern University professor wrote recently of similar reforms in Detroit, Chicago and Prince George's County, Md.: "It is probably not wise to put all one's educational reform resources into the (school-based management) basket as it is currently conceived."
The foundation has been a vital partner and financial contributor to Pinellas schools. Its recent push for a career focus in high schools has helped to spur "centers of excellence" that, if done correctly, should make high schools relevant to more students and help reduce the dropout rate.
This new crusade is also worth careful exploration, but the foundation can't reasonably expect the School Board to promise immediate steps. Pinellas, with 106,000 students, is the 23rd largest district in the United States. To hand over financial responsibility to 163 principals would require extensive debate about the size of each budget and extensive training for the principals in charge. No doubt, as Okaloosa found, such a sea change would also lead to turnover in the ranks.
The foundation's members are frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress, but Janssen is taking a measured and prudent approach. She's listening to those who work in the trenches and beginning a process of training. That's a good start.