District Principals Need Autonomy, Too

When charter school critics wax eloquent about traditional school districts, I always wonder (sometimes out loud) when they became enamored of the Department of Education bureaucracy. I know many principals and teachers don’t share that affection.

Take this whole saga of principals who prudently saved money in 2010-11, knowing they would face harder times in 2011-12, and expecting that they could keep what they squirreled away. The policy was all part of the larger strategy of empowering principals, making them responsible, and giving them autonomy.

Well, guess what? When budgets got tight, central management changed its mind. Then-Chancellor Cathie Black issued a new rule: principals could either spend their savings or lose a big chunk of it. Predictably, many went on rushed spending binges for equipment that, while helpful, wasn’t the teacher salaries they had saved for.

Now comes Chancellor Walcott, who rightly reversed that decision–but issued another central-office edict that capped schools’ savings on a per-pupil basis. Some schools benefitted from this, but others were left worse off than under the Black rule.

Edward Tom, the principal of Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics expressed it perfectly in e-mail to the chancellor: “My colleagues and I are willing to accept greater responsibility and accountability for the success of every child but we require the autonomy to lead our schools the way we see fit.”

Mr. Tom: not sure if anyone else supports your cause, but I’m pretty sure every charter leader in NYC is fully behind you. It’s profoundly unfair to divvy up the accountability with a shovel while measuring out the autonomy with an eye-dropper.