Free the districts

Over the past decade-plus, Florida has pursued multiple policy initiatives designed to free school districts from stifling bureaucracy and unhelpful rules.

Each was well-intentioned. Some of them led to better learning opportunities for students. But on the whole, they were ultimately too narrow, or came with too many strings attached, to usher a new era of dynamism into public schools.

As state leaders launch a new effort to reduce regulation on school districts, part of a legislative package that expanded education savings accounts, it’s worth reviewing some of this recent history.

One deregulation effort came in 2013, when Gov. Rick Scott announced plans to purge piles of outdated public-school rules from state law. These relieved districts of outdated paperwork requirements, like mandatory reports on recycling, but its impact on teaching, learning and school administration was ultimately limited.

That same year, lawmakers authorized District Innovation Schools of Technology. The concept was simple. Districts could designate schools to receive most of the same freedom from state regulations enjoyed by charter schools, if they also agreed to charter-like performance contracts.

There was one problem: The legislation required participating schools to employ one of several blended learning models, like the “flipped classroom,” that were au courant in 2013 but feel outdated now. This gesture toward regulatory freedom sits dormant and unused in statute.

Another pilot program designed to offer charter-like flexibility, the Principal Autonomy Program, emerged in 2016. A few districts around the state signed up for this program, and empowered leaders at a handful of campuses to make meaningful changes.

But the legislation never led to widespread transformation. One of its most promising provisions, which would have allowed district leaders to form “innovation academies and zones”—networks of public schools like those in South Texas or Springfield, Mass. that give administrators more flexibly respond to their students’ needs—also lies dormant.

One reason: The autonomy program is tied to the state’s school turnaround law, which means it’s mostly aimed at low-performing schools that need to improve quickly or face consequences. This limits the number of schools that can participate. It also makes taking the helm of one of these schools a risky proposition for an innovative school leader, since their job would be on the line immediately.

Florida law offers another path to principal autonomy. The state’s Schools of Excellence program offers similar freedoms for schools with consistently high letter grades. But this measure is limited to high performers, and a school can lose this flexibility if its academic rating drops.

A third pilot program, designed to encourage personalized learning, allowed districts to test approaches that let students progress based on their mastery of academic material, rather than the amount of time they spent in class. Some teachers and administrators embraced this flexibility but struggled to spread the promising practices beyond individual campuses. One participating district, Lake County, abandoned the initiative. While other efforts are still going strong, the seven-year pilot program created in statute is nearing expiration.

Creating truly enduring freedom for district leaders may require a different approach.

The year before it became the first state to pass universal education savings accounts, Arizona enacted a more open, opt-in opportunity for public schools that wanted more flexibility.

Any district that wanted to free itself from ordinary rules governing the time students were required to spend in traditional classrooms simply had to come up with a plan for assessing their progress based on mastery of the material and bring that plan before its board for approval. No extra hoops to jump through or potentially confusing eligibility limitations.

Across the country, states are embracing universal education savings accounts. Compared to the school choice programs of yesteryear, these programs offer more flexibility, broader eligibility and less paperwork for families. They’re big, bold and simple. Perhaps it’s time for the era of big, bold and simple to extend to school district flexibility.

To that end, Florida’s school superintendents’ association has made a provocative suggestion: Give charter-like flexibility to every public school in the state. If district schools also embrace charter-like open enrollment (allowing students to attend regardless of where they live and admitting them into over-enrolled schools by lottery) and the same charter-like performance accountability, that could be a compelling bargain.

Alternatively, Florida could consider the path charted by Arizona. Rather than small-bore pilot programs that offer limited autonomy to a select number of schools and districts that meet specific requirements and jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops, what would a big, bold and simple approach to district flexibility look like?

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)