States have a historic opportunity to invest in initiatives that will lead to systemic change and address long-standing inequities.
The Portfolio Strategy Is a Problem-Solving Framework, Not a School District
Public school choice in Detroit is essential but not yet working effectively. Students with special needs are not welcome in many Detroit charter schools. Lack of good transportation forces stressed families to choose schools based on safety rather than academics. High-performing charter management organizations are scared off by the dysfunction of the market, which is so oversaturated with schools that parents are offered cash and free iPads to enroll their children. Through savvy marketing, the school district is winning families back to schools that educate students to merely single-digit proficiency rates. There are a dozen different agencies—most located somewhere else in Michigan—that keep authorizing new schools and, with some exceptions, refuse to close low-performers.
In my recent blog about the state of Detroit’s public school system, I argued that there is no obvious way to address the problems without someone stepping up to bring some order to this chaos. Some authority needs to take responsibility to close down low-performing schools and replace them with something better, ensure free and safe passage to schools, arm parents with whatever information they need to find a good fit for their kids, enforce parent rights to special education when they can’t afford to sue, and so on.
In calling for a citywide solution, I intentionally used the term portfolio manager instead of portfolio district. It is not important which person, agency, or institution takes responsibility for solving the school choice problems in Detroit. It might be a cooperative agreement among two of the best charter authorizers and the school district. It might be an overarching agency with authority to step in when authorizers fail to do their jobs. It might be the mayor. What matters is not who takes responsibility for ensuring that all neighborhoods are served well, but that someone does.
As we at CRPE say, portfolio is not a model, it’s a framework for solving problems. One that says government’s job is to harness the power of parent choice but not to walk away from its responsibilities to:
- Build a vibrant and high-performing set of school providers.
- Help attract talented teachers and leaders to the city.
- Help parents get the information they need to make good choices.
- Ensure that all schools (chartered or not) have the freedom to control their finances, staffing, and educational approach.
- Ensure that schools’ continuation is contingent on performance.
- And—most importantly—ensure that every child in the city has equal access to high-quality options.
When school choice doesn’t function well because of a lack of transportation or poor parent information or other issues, a portfolio manager works to develop solutions. That might mean a common enrollment system that allows parents to submit one application to an array of charter and district schools. It might mean working with a local nonprofit to provide special education services to charter schools.
Portfolio management looks different in different cities. Some school districts are trying to transform their central offices to play this new role. Some, like the Tennessee ASD, are creating a portfolio central office from scratch while taking over existing schools. Most recently, in “high-choice” cities where charter schools have significant market share, third parties like the deputy mayor in D.C. and even nonprofits like New Schools for Baton Rouge are taking on this oversight role. For these reasons, the term “portfolio district” is now outdated and misleading.
Portfolio management does not mean that every school in the city has to be a charter school. However, if a given charter provider can outperform a given district-run school, then the district school must be replaced by the charter school. This is what happened in New Orleans’ Recovery School District. As long as charter schools outperformed RSD schools, they expanded. Portfolio is not loyal to any institutional framework. It simply does whatever works.
We don’t believe that government should simply check out of its responsibilities to oversee choice and facilitate markets. And we don’t believe that carving up the city into more than a dozen different charter fiefdoms will automatically lead to better educational opportunities for all of Detroit’s kids.
The downsides of the rush to jam everyone back into classrooms are evident.
We set out to assess what family-teacher partnerships have looked like in high school throughout the pandemic—paying close attention to promising new developments and enduring areas of need.