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A Portfolio of Schools

Treating district-run schools and charters the same promises to turn traditional education administration inside out.

While the recent waivers granted by the Obama administration of requirements under the No Child Left Behind law have been controversial, this latest chapter in K-12 school reform is not as interesting to me as the development of concept-shifting "portfolio school districts" now being attempted by as many as 20 urban school systems.

Portfolio management turns conventional school-district administration inside out by drawing all publicly funded schools into similar position relative to the governing administration. In its theoretical form, a portfolio school district no longer focuses primarily on management of district-run schools, with charters as a sideline operated largely outside of district oversight. Good schools—charters or district-run—are encouraged to expand; poorly-performing schools—charters or district-run—are closed or reconstituted under new management.

The unit of performance is the individual school, whether chartered or district-run. The evaluation is transparent and equivalent in standards. District-run schools operate with increasing autonomy, similar to charters. Parents are helped to make school choices for their children using a menu that lays out facts about their choices.

There are formidable challenges to putting this approach into operation. As Paul Hill comments in his recent report on four portfolio school districts, "Rebuilding a school district on the portfolio model involves challenges of many kinds: technical, organizational and political."

Long-simmering resentment among public-school advocates toward charters that have drawn funding and students from both public and parochial schools may make collaboration difficult, particularly if the shrinking districts have had little opportunity to shed the costs of underutilized schools.

Meanwhile, charters, which believe they are offering safe havens and choices for parents, bridle at the suggestion that their expansion should be constrained to accommodate broader school-district concerns about funding, underutilized buildings and the complexity of change in big bureaucracies. They often have political and family support that challenges the validity of evidence of poor performance.

The Gates Foundation has begun to provide financial incentives for urban districts and their charter counterparts to sign "district-charter collaboration compacts." These agreements are aimed at providing a framework for decision-making that can overcome what Vicki Phillips, a former Pennsylvania secretary of education and now Gates Foundation director of education, describes as "contentious and persistent tensions." Greater levels of support from the foundation appear to be on the horizon, and in some communities other philanthropic efforts are aligning around these partnerships.

Both charter operators and public officials and administrators accustomed to working within the boundaries of those things they directly control may find the portfolio approach unsettling. Charter operators, for example, are agreeing to be judged by uniform standards and to relinquish some of the control they have over the destiny of their individual schools.

For public officials and district administrators, the challenge is even greater. They must reorient themselves toward creating "good seats"—expanding capacity in schools and classrooms where students are doing better—and welcoming those good seats regardless of what kind of school offers them. They must be prepared to take decisive action over chronically poor-performing schools of any type. They will need to address the underutilized assets of district-run schools that have lost much of their student populations. In increasing autonomy and control to school leaders who demonstrate that they can build and sustain successful learning, they must be vigilant about equity across all schools for children with special educational needs, be it extreme poverty, disability, language or family circumstance.

They become the purchaser of high-quality educational seats on behalf of all children in publicly funded schools, and must redesign the central infrastructure to support that objective. Performance-based accountability for schools will require data systems that capture annual student growth and compare schools on student achievement, educational climate and improvement. Catchment-area planning that factors in multiple school operators will require a degree of collaboration heretofore unseen in public education.

The administrator who succeeds in this environment will need to reach beyond two decades of toxic competition between charters and district-run schools and build a public constituency for a very different starting point for public education. Nothing about public-school reform is easy.

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