Wild West or responsible oversight? Cities must manage existing portfolios of schools

A number of cities nationwide are caught in the throes of debate about whether or not they should regulate their schools using tenants of the school portfolio management model.  The fear is that embracing a portfolio strategy is tantamount to gutting public education.

But this debate is misguided. The reality is that, in many cities, a portfolio of schools (public schools) already exists. Put simply: the portfolio train has already left the station.

  • In Baltimore 74 percent of schools are traditional district schools, 16 percent are charter schools, and 10 percent are public transformation schools managed by external partners.
  • In Philadelphia 55 percent of schools are traditional district schools, 35 percent are charter schools, and 10 percent are public renaissance schools, part of a district initiative to dramatically change student outcomes in the district’s lowest performing schools.
  • In Denver 64 percent of schools are traditional district schools, 21 percent are charter schools, and 15 percent are public innovation schools, designed to provide unique programming and support accelerated academic achievement.
  • In Chicago 73 percent of schools are traditional district schools, 20 percent are charter schools, and roughly seven percent are turnaround schools, managed by external partners who seek to improve underperforming schools without moving students.

And lost in these rather blunt categorizations is another well-known but often overlooked fact: traditional district schools themselves include a wide variety of school types and programs, including magnet schools, themed schools, schools with career academies and the like.

Cities that choose to actively manage their portfolios—Denver is a good example—create a much more equitable and quality-driven system of schools.

Two options: Regulate for performance and equity or pretend the portfolio doesn’t exist

City leaders who choose to ignore existing portfolios of schools are, in essence, allowing a Wild West environment to perpetuate. (And critics who refuse to acknowledge the situation are perpetuating it.) Schools crop up wherever they can find buildings, rather than in neighborhoods most in need. School choice occurs in an unregulated market, allowing bad actors to cream students and push out low performers. No one know for sure what types of schools and programs families prefer, and no one knows which types of schools and programs best serve certain types of students.

By contrast, cities that choose to actively manage their portfolios—Denver is a good example—create a much more equitable and quality-driven system of schools. The district seeks input from families about the schools they want, the choice market is regulated to ensure that students have equitable access to schools and that schools can’t game the system, and a great deal of time and effort is put into understanding the types of schools and programs that best serve kids.

The right questions to ask

In cities that have an existing mix of public options, we owe it to families and kids to stop pretending that portfolios don’t exist. They do. Given that reality, the question that leadership in these cities should ask is not, “Should we use school portfolio management tenants?” Instead, it’s “How do we manage our existing portfolio of schools with equity, quality and community needs in mind?”