Opinion: It's time for principals to take the lead

Joda Thongnopnua, center, David Morton, left, and Jackie Homann work at the Metro Ideas project, an independent nonprofit start up that is rethinking the traditional policy research model.

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If you go› What: Student-based budgeting discussion.› Where: Bellhops office, Warehouse Row.› When: June 8 at 5:30 p.m.› Cost: Free to attend, open to the public.

Help wanted: a grueling senior management role charged with turning around a struggling organization with little authority over financial resources, staffing structure or basic operations.

Hardly the most enticing job description. It's almost impossible to imagine any executive willing to put up with such a scenario, but it's a stark reality for most principals in our community.

The role of the principal has dramatically changed over the past several decades. Principals are increasingly responsible for driving student success and closing achievement gaps on top of their traditional administrative duties. They are expected to do all this without authority over key decisions, like staffing or salaries. In effect, they are CEOs bound by the limitations of middle management.

Why? The problem is in the budget.

Over the past four months, the Metro Ideas Project has dug deep into education funding in Hamilton County. We had one big question: how is money spent at the school level? We found a one-size-fits-all funding model that limits principals' budgetary authority and prioritizes centralized uniformity over differences in student needs.

This traditional approach keeps most spending under district control and allocates funding based on staffing formulas, not on students. It leads to a glaring lack of autonomy for school leaders.

We found that Hamilton County principals only control up to 2 percent of their school budgets. These discretionary "general funds" are part public, part private. The public portion comes from the district and is based on enrollment figures. The rest comes from fundraisers, fees and private donations.

This money can be spent however school leaders see fit, but schools with wealthier student populations tend to have more of it.

We found that schools with a higher percentage of poor students had significantly less discretionary money to spend in 2015. Orchard Knob Middle had $10,415 while Hunter Middle School had $149,870. Signal Mountain Middle-High had $204,081 compared to Lookout Valley Middle-High's $24,738. Normal Park had $209,602, which is significantly higher than Woodmore Elementary's $13,207. The Howard School reported $14,134 compared to East Hamilton Middle-High's $200,401.

While these figures only represent a small fraction of a school's budget and don't account for more restrictive Title I funding, the inequities reveal something troubling. High poverty schools could benefit the most from more autonomy and flexible spending, yet our research reveals that they are likely to receive the least.

There's a better way: student-based budgeting. This approach is designed to empower principals and shift the focus back to what really matters in education - students.

Under this budgeting model, funds follow students and principals determine how that money is spent. Principals would work together with the district to identify key needs and priorities, develop school budgets and design staffing plans that best serve their students' needs.

It would give school leaders space to pursue innovative ideas. They could experiment with student-teacher ratios or design entirely new types of teaching positions. At its core, student-based budgeting is about the ability to design better schools.

Dalewood Middle School might increase class sizes by assigning two teachers - one veteran, one aspiring - to each classroom, exposing more students to both experience and new ideas. East Side Elementary could bolster resources for its many English language learners by adding more reading interventionists and bilingual teaching positions. Central High School and Brown Middle School may even decide to partner and share resources to dramatically expand services for exceptional education students. These are hypothetical scenarios, but they demonstrate the possibilities when a principal is put in the driver's seat.

Admittedly, none of this is easy. More autonomy and control emphasizes the need for proper accountability. A recent report by the Center for Public Education suggests that while highly effective principals can improve standardized test results up to 10 percentile points in one year, ineffective principals can similarly have a negative impact on student achievement for several years. To be most effective, student-based budgeting should be paired with a clear strategy to recruit and retain excellent principals and the best teachers to support them.

This work would be tough, but it's not impossible. We can look to our neighbors just two hours away for proof.

In two weeks, the Metro Ideas Project is hosting an open conversation with leaders from Metro Nashville Public Schools to discuss their recent transition to student-based budgeting and what we can learn from their efforts.

By adopting student-based budgeting and allowing principals to lead, the Hamilton County school system's incoming leadership and its veteran public servants would have an opportunity to take the first steps in designing an education strategy that is equitable, transparent and effective.

Our principals have a tough job to do. Let's give them better tools to succeed.

Joda Thongnopnua executive director of Metro Ideas Project, an independent, nonprofit research startup focusing on public policy issues.