Can We Put the Schools "in Charge"? Colorado's Falcon 49 Shows a Different Way

A good thought-piece to read this week is John Katzman’s new Education Week article “Putting the Schools in Charge.” While I don’t agree with everything in the piece, the author has a laudable vision about sweeping systemic K-12 changes and makes some very sound assessments of the best ways to get there. And as I so often like to do, his main point particularly has a strong Colorado connection worthy of highlight.

First and foremost, Katzman recommends sparking needed innovation by giving more power to school-level leaders, including greater choice over how and where they purchase central services:

Right now, every state distributes state and federal funds to districts; in turn, the districts distribute funds to schools. Imagine that states instead channel funds directly to schools and require that the schools contract with a school support organization (SSO) for an array of services similar to what its district’s central office now provides….

You may not have to imagine as much as you think. Look no further than Falcon School District 49 near Colorado Springs, where last year’s innovation efforts focused on streamlining the central district office and reconfiguring its role as a competitive service provider. The district is also working to develop a system of “backpack funding,” where dollars better follow students to the schools and zones that directly serve their educational needs.

Falcon 49’s innovation initiative unleashed some parent and staff energy that has accelerated some positive developments at the local level. (The district is now divided into four zones — including three different high school feeder systems and a zone focused on charters, alternative programs and online course delivery.) Some further changes require getting waivers approved by the State Board of Education, under the Innovation Schools Act.

As we contemplate the large-scale changes discussed by Mr. Katzman and others, it’s worthwhile to take note of local activities like those in Falcon that represent model steps forward for others in the K-12 world to embrace.