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District 49's Innovative Strategy is the Real News in Falcon

Changes to Falcon’s busing system may so far have drawn the most attention, but the board’s newly charted innovation plan is far more likely to have a lasting impact on students.

On Jan. 13 the Falcon District 49 school board set in motion a plan designed to empower families, to streamline bureaucracy and to give principals the tools and incentives to succeed. The phrase “innovation zone” at the center of the plan is more than a buzzword or an ethereal abstraction. It represents the promise of positive, transformative change for individual teachers and students.

Under the current structure that prevails in most school districts, many decisions effectively are made at speeds too slow to remedy classroom challenges. Issues affecting curriculum or discipline may be addressed by one-size-fits-all solutions with unintended effects, or remain unresolved altogether. With no ill intent, the priorities of district administrators tend to trump priorities at the school and student level.

One area in which the innovation zone concept could make a positive difference is in staffing. District 49’s high school principals from its three feeder patterns of Falcon, Sand Creek and Vista Ridge — to be designated as site-based “innovation leaders” — will acquire more latitude to hire personnel when and how best suits the needs of their students and unique school programs.

A lot of people talk about making administration leaner, but District 49 is to be commended for doing something constructive about it. Whether in human resources or in areas such as curriculum, site maintenance and student services, Falcon’s proposal will change the central office from master to servant. The door also will be opened to consider more competitive contracting of services.

Falcon’s plan ultimately will place more money under school-level control, a transition that presents its own challenges. Yet district leaders already have put together an extended training program to prepare principals for their new-found authority and responsibilities.

A vital piece of the plan is a new funding scheme known as “backpack budgeting.” Though the details have yet to be forged, the idea is to stop allowing staffing policies and central office decisions determine where the per-pupil funding goes. Instead, the money will follow the student to the family’s choice of school. Teachers and principals will have to focus on meeting student needs or risk losing resources that come with future customers.

More than a dozen school distr icts nationwide have adopted this sort of funding strategy, under numerous different names. As a key part of reform in the struggling Baltimore City Schools, for example, Fair Student Funding has helped to spur further site-based innovations and contributed to a rise in student achievement.

Along with a greater classroom focus to improve student experiences and outcomes, a related goal of the innovation plan is to spend existing funds more productively. District 49 seeks to replace the “use it or lose it” practice of central budgeting with incentives for schools to use taxpayer dollars wisely.

It’s a decision born out of necessity. Decades of widespread per-pupil spending growth have given way to leaner, tighter K-12 budgets nationwide.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted in a November speech that “the challenge of doing more with less…can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements.” Following Duncan’s lead, Colorado’s State Board of Education is weighing a resolution encouraging school districts “to implement cost efficiencies and adhere to the Secretary’s recommendation to improve the productivity of the education system.”

District 49 leaders are providing a strong audition to serve as the poster child for this brand of bold and innovative reform. As long as the board continues pursuing the current path, other districts will have a pioneer to follow.

While yet to receive the attention it deserves, Falcon’s innovation plan represents an important step that could yield positive changes for years to come.

Ben DeGrow is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette on January 26, 2011.