Portfolio school districts: Digging into the details of implementation

A year ago, the term “portfolio school district” was still relatively unknown. Increasingly, it’s begun to surface in the public dialogue about school reform. But what exactly such districts are – and what they do – remains, in most circles, a bit of a mystery.

At base, the theory involves adjusting the way public education is delivered from the most common current system in which districts and charter management operators operate side by side (and often in competition) to one in which the schools are managed as a unified whole.

But the ability to drive the systemic changes that matter to families and students in cities nationwide depends on more than theory.

The nitty gritty of change: What’s happening city by city

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has done an enormous amount to ground the emerging conversation, sharing examples of best practice and offering frank discussion about the challenges of transitioning to such a system. This week, CRPE publicized its latest issue brief, detailing how open enrollment systems (one key enabler of portfolio districts) have begun to be implemented in three different cities.

Last week, CRPE unveiled an even more intriguing item—its “portfolio implementation snapshot tool.” The interactive tool shows, at a glance, the performance of some 40 districts—all members of a national network of portfolio school systems—in transforming from disjointed public education systems to more coherent systems that provide better quality options for all students.

Among the keys to progress are a clear understanding of that complexity, the ability to hold nascent portfolio districts accountable for performance across multiple measures, and insight into what is and isn’t (yet) working on the ground.

The beauty of the tool, however, is less the snapshot view of all districts than the ability to drill into the details against which districts are measured. For instance, by drilling into a particular district, you can see that one of the seven overarching measures by which cities are ranked, providing “good options and choices for all students,” breaks down further into a number of sub-elements including:

  • School choice for all families
  • Equity and access to all schools for special education students and English language learners
  • New schools opened based on family/student/neighborhood need
  • Coordination of enrollment and school information for families across sectors
  • And more

This granularity offers a breath of much needed fresh air. Why? Because implementation of systemic reforms—especially implementation of reforms that entail collapsing independent and parallel governance structures into unified, strategic entities—is inherently complex work.

Among the keys to progress are a clear understanding of that complexity, the ability to hold nascent portfolio districts accountable for performance across multiple measures, and insight into what is and isn’t (yet) working on the ground.

Breaking through myths about portfolio school districts

It’s easy to mischaracterize portfolio school districts, but we fall prey to oversimplifications and fear-mongering at our peril. We also fall prey to them at great cost to families and children who deserve better schools, healthier school systems, and more forthright information about school quality and the factors that influence it.

As we push forward, we can learn valuable lessons from successes like those going on in Tennessee, Denver and Baltimore, as well as from cities and districts that are still struggling to gain traction. Thanks to CRPE for their work in continuing to help ensure that all stakeholders in the ed reform conversation understand just what it takes to succeed in the hard work of systemic transformation.