In education, the concept of autonomy is perhaps most commonly discussed in reference to professional independence in schools, particularly the degree to which teachers can make autonomous decisions about what they teach to students and how they teach it. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see teacher autonomy.

That said, the concept of autonomy in public education may take several different forms:

  • Local-governance autonomy: In education, the degree to which local governing bodies—such as school districts and school boards—can make independent decisions about how to structure and operate public schools is a common topic of study, discussion, and debate in the United States. Those who advocate for greater autonomy in the governance of schools tend to argue that the individuals and institutions closest to, most knowledgeable about, and most invested in a school—and in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions related to operations, academics, leadership, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal educational policies that are intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in districts and public schools, given that autonomy in local governance is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in state and federal education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements. Autonomy in local governance also intersects with two related educational terms and concepts: “local control” and “site-based management,” both of which refer to the ability of local institutions and governing bodies to make autonomous decisions about the management of public schools. In some states and regions, local control is a complicated and often contentious issue. In New England, for example, there is a long history of local control over public schools, typically in the form of school boards or school unions, while state-directed control of public schools is less controversial or contentious in the southern states, which do not have the same history of local control over public schools. For a more detailed discussion, see local control.
  • School autonomy: The concept of autonomy also intersects with the governance and design of specific schools. For example, charter schools—privately operated schools funded partially or entirely by public money, often in the form of student tuition paid by states and communities—are generally considered to have more autonomy when it comes to making decisions about how the school will operate and teach students. Charter-school regulations, however, can differ significantly from state to state: some states have more prescriptive or involved regulations governing the operation of charter schools, while others have more permissive policies, lighter governmental oversight, and less demanding compliance requirements. As with issues related to local governance, the autonomy of individual public schools is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in state and federal education policies, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements.
  • Teacher autonomy: The concept of “teacher autonomy” is a common topic of discussion and debate in education. Advocates of greater teacher autonomy may argue that because teachers are in the best position to make informed decisions about a student’s education, teachers should be given as much autonomy as possible when it comes to determining instructional strategies, curriculum, and academic support. In this view, for example, more regulations, tougher job requirements, greater administrative oversight, or more burdensome teacher-evaluation procedures will inevitability stifle the instructional creativity and responsiveness of teachers, which could produce a variety of negative results, including lower student performance or higher job dissatisfaction and attrition rates among teachers. Critics of teacher autonomy tend to cite evidence that teaching quality and effectiveness is uneven, and that problems such as achievement gaps or low graduation rates indicate that measures need to be taken to improve the effectiveness of teachers and public-school instruction, including more administrative oversight, increased educational and professional requirements for new teachers, stronger evaluation systems for job performance, or penalties for poor-performing teachers.
  • Parent autonomy: In recent years, the idea of parents playing a role in the operation and management of a school has become increasingly popular and contentious. While some debates are centered on the degree of control that parents should have over what gets taught to their children—particularly when it comes to subjects that are broadly contentious in American society, such as sex education or the teaching of evolution—others are focused on issues related to leadership and management. For example, so-called “parent trigger laws” allow parents to intervene when the school their children attend is deemed “low performing.” Although laws differ from state to state, they usually allow parent groups to create petitions that, with enough signatures, can “trigger” a variety of actions, such as converting a public school into a charter school, firing and replacing the school’s administration and faculty, or closing the school and sending its students to alternate schools. In some states, laws allow committees or councils of parents to play a role in the management of schools, which can even extend to participating in decisions related to the hiring and firing of school administrators. In many cases, however, parent committees play only an advisory role in a school or district, and their recommendations may or may not be acted upon.
  • Student autonomy: In recent years, educators have increasingly discussed and debated the degree to which students should be given more autonomy in the educational process. For example, the concept of  “student voice” is often used in reference to instructional approaches and techniques that take into consideration student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions. Some educators argue that students should play a more active role in designing or selecting learning experiences in schools, and that such approaches can encourage students to be more interested in school, more motivated to learn, and more likely to take greater responsibility over their education. In addition, the terms student autonomy or learner autonomy may refer to various theories of education that suggest learning improves when students take more control or responsibility over their own learning process. For related discussions, see differentiation, personalized learning, scaffoldingstudent-centered learning, and student engagement.