Give Public Schools Two Principals

Lisa Belzberg, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, has an idea for restructuring public schools: Divide up the principal's job into two roles, so that one person is in charge of education and one is in charge of business. I recently spoke with Belzberg—who founded the education nonprofit PENCIL, which promotes links between businesses and schools—about her proposal. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

—Molly Mirhashem

Can you explain your idea?

There has been a move in public-school governance toward decentralization: giving a lot of control to individual principals. This gives many principals the responsibility to develop and manage their own budgets. I believe that public schools should be operated more like the good charter schools: Good charter schools are run by two people. There is someone who's in charge of the educational aspects of the school, and someone in charge of operations. And you have to make sure that the instructional head and the business manager are hired as a team of sorts and are viewed as codependent partners with equal status.

(Illustration by James O'Brien)What specific problem does your idea address?

Too often our school leaders are not trained to be business managers. They are mayors of small cities in a way. They have to deal with all sorts of issues, such as busing, food services, health and welfare, and absenteeism of teachers and students. They have so many issues, and they're not actually trained anywhere to deal with them. If you're a teacher who gets bumped up to be principal because you're a great teacher, that doesn't begin to give you the skill set you need. So this gets the educator back into the classroom and then brings in someone who's actually trained to be a real business manager. And there's a very healthy tension between the two.

What do you mean by "healthy tension"?

The educator's role is always to spend more time, money, and energy on professional development. A good principal wants it to be as broad of a community school as it can be, with as many wrap-around services as it can have. And then you have a business person who says: "We can't manage that, because we don't have the budget for that. We have to figure out how to prioritize our money." And: "I'm sorry you can't have all of those things. Here are the things I think we can have now." I love the idea of one being the dreamer, and the other saying, "I love your dreams, and here are the ones we can fulfill now."

Are there any downsides to this idea that should be considered?

You have to make sure people aren't upset that there's money being spent on extra administrative positions, which could take away from instructional resources. That has to be made up somehow, so there's no resentment. And you really have to define roles and responsibilities clearly with the two people.

Is this an idea that's already floating around? What needs to be done to raise more awareness of it?

It's floating around a little bit, for sure. If you have a principal from a public school go in to look at a charter, they'll say, "Oh boy, if only I had that person—what I could do with my teachers." So you have it percolating from below and from the outside a bit, too. I think there are many steps that can be taken to bring it to the next level. One step is to highlight that it is one of many reasons why good charter schools are successful. Also, business schools should create both regular and executive MBA programs specifically tailored to those skills and competencies needed in budgeting and running a unionized, multifaceted public school. Other steps would include partnering with innovation labs at business schools, getting business schools to sign on, and getting foundations to pay for it.

How would this be implemented?

I'm a big believer in starting something small, showing that it works, and then implementing it on a larger scale. So it wouldn't need to be a policy that mandated that every city did this. Once you see the difference in a few schools, you build a few more until you get a critical mass.