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Is Autonomy for All Schools the Next Wave of Reform for Boston?

Boston's school system—for decades the steady-as-she-goes urban model of reform—is going through quite a period of change and turmoil.

There's a new mayor in charge of the city's schools. The mayorally appointed school committee is conducting a search for a new superintendent to replace Carol Johnson, who retired nearly a year ago. And just last week, it came to light in a tough external review that the district's much-admired academic progress in recent years is in jeopardy of being scuttled by, among other things, discord and dysfunction in the central office.

Now, a new report is offering up a raft of recommendations that essentially call for freeing all of the city's schools from directives of the central office and union contracts to give them charter-like autonomy when it comes to curriculum, budgeting, and hiring. John McDonough, the district's interim superintendent who has been weighing whether to give more independence to all schools in the system, asked for the report, which was prepared by two Boston-area nonprofits and paid for by the Boston Foundation.

By the start of the 2014-15 academic year, 32 percent of Boston's 55,000 public K-12 students will attend schools that already have varying levels of autonomy: an in-district charter, a pilot school, innovation school or a turnaround school. The report found that, collectively, the autonomous schools in the city were more popular with parents than typical district schools and that many of them were better able to make decisions about deploying resources and staff members in a way that best met the needs of students.

Expanding autonomy to schools across the system would be an about-face for the Boston district, which, under former superintendents Tom Payzant and Ms. Johnson, largely dictated improvement strategies from the central office. And a move to systemwide autonomy would no doubt spark major pushback for other reasons as well, especially from some educators, union officials, and community members who see such a move as a way of weakening collective bargaining for teachers and privatizing education.

And who knows whether Boston's next superintendent would embrace such an autonomous approach, although the report does address that very issue in its final recommendation, which urges district decisionmakers to prioritize candidates who would.

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