Contracts for a new South African ‘contract schools’ sector must balance freedom, accountability

What’s the nature of the ‘contract’ in contract schools? Who are the parties involved? What degree of freedom and control would each have?  A recent Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) Report, The Missing Sector, provides some insights on these questions. The report draws on experiences with contract schools in 20 countries around the world, highlighting key lessons learned in multiple countries’ attempts to provide low-income communities with high-quality, affordable schools. [1]

Contract schools are essentially state-funded schools that are operated by non-state agencies such as individuals, NGOs or other organizations. Based on its research into international experience, CDE recommends that the South African government establish a new public authority to authorize and oversee these school operators. The ‘contract’ governs the relationship between the authorizers and operators. Getting these contracts right is essential to the success of both individual schools and the sector as a whole. What should such contracts look like? As a baseline, they must address school authority, educational quality and term limits for contract review and renewal. They must also clearly articulate the powers, freedoms and responsibilities of each of the parties.

Greater autonomy at the school level

The need for contracts to guarantee school operators’ autonomy is clear. With greater autonomy, the school operator, who is closer to local learners and who better understands local needs and capacities, can adjust the way a given school functions to address the particular needs of its learners. Giving school operators such freedoms will entail some shifts in the way government-funded schools are managed. For instance, in today’s system, school governing bodies (which now oversee schools, but which would likely have a modified composition or role under a contract schools model) have a fair degree of autonomy on decisions about admission, budgets and language policy. Curriculum decisions, staffing authority and more rest with the government, whether provincial education departments or the Department of Basic Education.

Under the contract school model, increased authority over day-to-day school activities would rest with contract-school operators. These operators would (as many government schools already do) have the ability to extend the length of the school day, and to adjust the pedagogical approach and curriculum delivery (although not the curriculum itself). They would have authority over language policy, budgets, resource mobilization and financial management. They would also have the freedom to engage outside service providers to ensure well-managed provision of key nonacademic functions. Perhaps most significant is the shift in the teacher-employer relationship. Under a contract school model, teachers are employed directly by schools. Contracts between authorizers and school operators would explicitly allow operators to manage staff based on expertise and performance.

The right balance can better assure that strong partners are in place to help achieve the ultimate goal: Quality education for all.

Greater accountability for results

What would the government get in return? Contractually guaranteed accountability for results, and the power to act if such results are not delivered within a reasonable timeframe. Specifically, school operators would be required to help students demonstrably improve their academic performance against clearly stipulated measures—and to do so within set term limits. If operators don’t meet their obligations, authorizers will have the authority to revoke their contracts and shut them down.

Why is closure so important? US charter sector experience is pertinent here. In the US, most performance contacts are put in place for a limited term. At the end of the term, the authorizer decides whether or not to renew the contract—a decision typically made on the basis of school performance. The salient discovery in the US is that, if charter schools fail to perform in the first three years (even in the first two), they are unlikely to do better later. “For the majority of schools, poor first year performance will give way to poor second year performance,” noted one 2013 report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). “Once this has happened, the future is predictable and extremely bleak. For the students enrolled in these schools, this is a tragedy that must not be dismissed.”

The goal of starting a new sector isn’t to open schools simply to shut them down again, of course. It’s to ensure 1) that the largest possible number of learners obtain access to high-performing schools and 2) that such schools expand to serve as many children as possible. In the US, a number of charter school models, from single operator to chain, have emerged. Among the most successful in terms of providing communities with strong options that outperform traditional public schools are a handful of high-performing charter networks, such as KIPP and Rocketship.

The takeaway

The nature of the contracts we put in place in this new school sector is critical to ensuring the creation of a strong sector that serves the goal of better educating more children. School operators need the freedom to innovate to meet the needs of their communities, and government authorizers need a clear mandate to close schools that fail to deliver adequate academic growth. The right balance can better assure that strong partners are in place to help achieve the ultimate goal: Quality education for all.

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the possibility of building a strong contract schools sector in South Africa. Read more.

[1] The report, “The Missing Sector- Contract Schools: International experience and South African prospects,” was written and published by CDE. The report is based on five background research reports written for CDE as well as two workshops with leading experts. It provides a high level analysis of the sector as it’s evolved globally, and makes series of recommendations for incubating such a sector in South Africa. The report was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.