Conventional wisdom about education holds that local control, a strong principal, and active, involved parents are crucial ingredients in the mix that makes a successful school. This wisdom is so pervasive that the Legislature has made local control, in the form of “site-based decision making,” a legal requirement in Texas schools. But this wisdom assumes that the principal, the site-based decisions, and the active parents will all operate in concert, that they will all finally agree on what is best for their school. Yet they don’t necessarily agree, and there isn’t any particular reason why they should. When they don’t agree, the results are more damaging than the weakness of a principal or the indifference of parents.
Ron Beauford was the principal of Austin’s L.C. Anderson High School until late last October. He is a stocky man with large blue eyes and more than his share of intelligence and charm. In June 1989 he took a trip to Canada, and in retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of his world. “It’s my fault,” he says today. “I created the situation where all of these problems blew up, and in reality all of them could have been resolved.” But his supporters refuse to believe that Beauford is to blame. They think that dark conspiracies by the powerful and well placed were the cause. And although Beauford’s candor is disarming, he also seems to think there is something more in his situation than appears on the surface. “What did I touch,” he wonders grimly, “that I didn’t know I touched?”
Beauford had been principal at Anderson for nine years. The school is in northwest Austin, a relatively new, semisuburban area. Although he was not immune from criticism, Beauford made the school work. Eighty-eight percent of the graduates from Anderson go on to college. One quarter score over 1,200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. In a survey conducted by the Austin school district, every teacher on the Anderson faculty agreed with the statement “Our classrooms are characterized by students actively engaged in learning.” Parents were quite involved in the school. The Parent-Teacher-Student Association has a membership of about 630. Beauford ran the school the way any good principal does—as a benevolent dictatorship—although in his own mind his system was closer to a democracy. No one could have been happier than he was when the Legislature made site-based decision making official policy. Beauford had always considered himself more or less autonomous.
During the summer of 1990 Beauford decided to begin a superior but complicated new program. Although he had been vaguely aware of the International Baccalaureate degree, it was while he was in Edmonton, Canada,