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Principals celebrate release

As the UK expands its independent academies, state schools in the US are also being released from local authority control. Stephen Phillips reports


Chicago's top state schools are to receive broad new self-management powers, handing them similar freedoms to those enjoyed by America's burgeoning but controversial charter schools.

Measures announced last week will release 85 schools - 15 per cent of the city's total - from education authority control, granting them greater autonomy over what they teach, how they spend funding, and run daily operations right down to building maintenance and repairs.

Officials hope that cutting red tape for schools with a proven track record will encourage innovation by local staff who know their school best, rather than having decisions made by bureaucrats trying to find common denominators in widely-varying schools.

The new measure will give high-performing schools "entrepreneurial flexibility", while freeing up administrative resources for struggling schools, said Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chicago's chief education officer.

The schools will be able to set their own timetables, order textbooks and train staff, and enjoy greater discretion over how they spend budgets. They must comply with academic standards,"but how they get there will be up to (them)," said Ms Eason-Watkins.

Schools were chosen, based on test scores and how well they were run.

"We looked hard at all the factors that go into creating a successful school that truly serves the needs of our students," said Arne Duncan, Chicago public schools chief executive officer.

"These schools have obviously got it figured out. The best thing we can do is get out of their way."

Barbara Radner, director of the centre for urban education at Chicago's DePaul university, said the move turned the authority into a "consultant to these schools, whereas before it was a director."

Principals have welcomed the new powers. "The respect we're being accorded is a huge compliment," said Mary Ravid at Thorp scholastic academy. "I can be creative in tailoring programmes I want."

Keith Foley, head of Lane technical high school, said he planned to raise school-leaving requirements - previously tied to authority-wide standards that students at his high-flying school typically complete a year early.

"This gets us out from under the bureaucracy," Mr Foley said.

The schools will have similar freedoms to charter schools, while still enjoying ultimate recourse to authority resources if needed, Ms Radner said.

Publicly-funded but autonomous, charter schools were first set up in America in the 1990s. The idea was to to spark fresh ideas and methods particularly for students who were failing to respond to standard educational approaches.

But some of the new breed of operators brought in to run the new schools found they were not up to the task, said Ms Radner.

Earlier this month, Chicago Children's Choir announced it was seeking another organisation to run its charter school, saying it had bitten off more than it could chew.

The closest parallel to Chicago's move elsewhere in America is Boston's 11-year-old "pilot school" programme. This gives a cadre of 19 small schools, nominally under education authority control, wide powers to run their own day-to-day operations.

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