Partnership Zone in Practice: What Could This Mean For You? Part Three
Recently, Secretary Lowery designated four schools as members of Delaware’s statewide Partnership Zone Initiative, an ambitious effort to transform the academic outcomes of students at our persistently low-performing schools. Secretary Lowery chose each of the four campuses based upon regulations outlined in Delaware’s Education Administrative Code. Once chosen for participation, each school is required to engage in a 90-day process in which they chose a school turnaround model and develop plans to implement aggressive reforms, such as alternative curricular models and job-embedded professional development.
One component mentioned in regulations that has not garnered significant attention–but remains extremely crucial– is flexible funding. Regulations state that participating schools can consider, “instituting flexible funding at school level and oversight of same,” which seems vague and technical, but is of critical importance.
Currently, Delaware awards state funds to schools based on a 62 year-old system in which districts earn the right to hire staff (which the state will pay) based upon the enrollment of students. This system, however, does not differentiate or respond to students’ needs (English language learners, low-income students, etc.). In an era of increasing accountability and world-class standards, we must provide those with detailed knowledge of students the opportunity to maximize the effectiveness of resources rather than legislating the allocation of every dollar from Dover.
Partnership Zone districts will have some federal funds that can be used flexibly at the school level. These include Race to the Top grants of $200,000 per school and School Improvement Grants of up to $700,000/year for three years to be awarded in the winter. This increased flexibility would be most welcome in an era when, as one study showed, Delaware principals maintain control over only eight percent of their budget. However, it remains to be seen how all other districts and schools can use state funds more flexibly given our restrictive unit count system.
The idea of financial flexibility isn’t new. In fact, this approach was explicitly outlined in Delaware’s winning Race to the Top application and endorsed by Vision 2015, the LEAD Committee, Governor Markell’s Blueprint and his remarks at the Vision 2015 Conference, and numerous national experts. Also, a pilot was introduced in the Delaware General Assembly last year with support from numerous stakeholders, including several districts eager to participate.
We must heed the recommendations of all those above and provide districts and schools increased flexibility with state funds. Perhaps the Partnership Zone schools will spur policymakers to action by successfully demonstrating the power of putting resource decisions to those closest to the student.