Fla. House spending proposal would expand principal autonomy program

A few years ago, the superintendent of the Broward County school district was willing to make a trade.

The approach advocated by Superintendent Robert Runcie went something like this. Give some of our district’s struggling schools some the same freedoms charter schools receive in state law. We’ll put some our best principals in charge, and we’ll guarantee performance will improve.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, turned the concept into legislation that created the Principal Autonomy Pilot Program. It allowed a few school districts to pick three low-performing schools that could enter charter-like, autonomy-for-accountability agreements with the state.

Diaz, a former public-school administrator, now chairs the House committee that writes the education budget. Today, the committee released its spending plan for next school year. Related legislation would allow any district in the state to participate in the principal autonomy program.

The state Board of Education approved principal autonomy plans for three districts, including Broward, last March. A few other districts were eligible to participate but didn’t. Of the three participating Broward schools, two were rated F at the time, the lowest possible grade in the state’s grading system. The other was rated D. All of them rose to C’s when grades came out this summer.

Runcie pointed to that track record last week when he convinced the state board to allow three other schools in his district an extra year to raise their letter grades. Without those extensions, the state’s new school turnaround system would have required those schools to convert to charter schools, get taken over by an external operator or close if they did not raise their grades to a C or higher.

Runcie also noted the state autonomy program was based on Broward’s turnaround approach. He talked about seeking out the highest-performing principals in his district, sitting them down, and asking them to take on a tough new assignment in exchange for a five-figure pay boost.

“The deal was, look, you get to hire all your staff,” he said. “You have autonomy over your budget, your programs.”

The letter grade improvements at Broward’s most disadvantaged schools are broader than any one program. Excluding charter schools, the district went from 35 D and F schools in 2016 to just 8 last year. For Runcie to hit the targets he described to the state board, that number will need to shrink even more this summer.

The House’s proposal would make another tweak to the law. Once schools get principal autonomy, they would be able to keep it, as long as they raise their letter grades to B’s or higher over the course of the three-year program, and their grades remain at least that high.

This is one of several proposals that suggest the pendulum in Tallahassee is swinging away from top-down regulation of public schools, and that are extending some of charter schools’ freedoms to schools run by districts.