How is a Portfolio District Different from a School District?

By 11/14/2014

Print | NO PDF |

The Ed Next article by Robin J. Lake, Ashley Jochim and Michael DeArmond on the challenges facing school choice in Detroit has led to a resurgence of chatter about Portfolio Districts.  The authors write:

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

And in an accompanying blog post Lake concludes: “What Detroit needs is a portfolio manager…”

The idea that we need a Portfolio District to decide which schools of choice are allowed to open, which must shut-down, and what regulations should govern all of them has gained some traction in reform circles ever since New Orleans adopted this approach.  Now folks want to bring that same idea to Detroit and choice systems everywhere to make sure bad actors don’t get to operate schools, that failing schools are forced to close, and that a heavy regulatory framework avoids other problems.

I’ve never understood how Portfolio Districts are expected to perform these regulatory functions any better than regular old school districts.  The whole thing reminds me of a scene from the South Park Hippie Drum Circle episode.

Portfolio District Advocate: “Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like is a Portfolio Manager, who like can close down bad schools.”

Me: “You mean like a superintendent?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “No, man, this guy will work for an independent board that makes rules for schools to make sure they don’t do bad things.”

Me: “You mean like a school district?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “You don’t get it, dude, the Portfolio District is there to make sure that only good schools open and to provide information and reduce chaos.”

Me: “Isn’t that what school districts are already supposed to do? How is a Portfolio District any different other than that you gave it a new name and believe that good people will be in charge?”

Ed reform is plagued by people not thinking like social scientists.  School districts have institutional incentives to prevent new good schools from opening, propping up bad schools that too few parents want, and imposing an excessive regulatory framework on the entire system.  Those same institutional incentives will inevitably come to dominate Portfolio Districts.

If you want to create real change, you have to change the system of incentives — not just create new institutions that will be governed by the same perverse incentives.  Choice and market competition can accomplish the same goals without being subject to the same destructive incentives as school and portfolio districts.

Yes, I know that Robin Lake and her co-authors find continued low achievement in Detroit schools and quote several people who complain about a lack of information and other challenges.  But keep in mind that the big expansion in choice in Detroit is only a few years old and that the city is starting from an extremely high level of dysfunction.  Lake and her colleagues have not used a rigorous analysis to determine whether charter schools are having a positive effect in Detroit, they just show trends in urban NAEP scores.  And the few studies on Detroit charters they do cite — the CREDO and  Mackinac studies — both find positive results for Detroit charters.  It just isn’t fast enough and dramatic enough.

Beware ed reformers in a hurry.  Real and enduring improvement takes time.  Happily it is possible, if we have the patience to let it happen.  A new study by Patrick L. Baude, Marcus Casey, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin examines the evolution of charter school quality in Texas over time.  Here is their abstract:

Studies of the charter school sector typically focus on head-to-head comparisons of charter and traditional schools at a point in time, but the expansion of parental choice and relaxation of constraints on school operations is unlikely to raise school quality overnight. Rather, the success of the reform depends in large part on whether parental choices induce improvements in the charter sector. We study quality changes among Texas charter schools between 2001 and 2011. Our results suggest that the charter sector was initially characterized by schools whose quality was highly variable and, on average, less effective than traditional public schools. However, exits from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools. Moreover, the evidence is consistent with the belief that a reduction in student turnover as the sector matures, expansion of the share of charters that adhere to a No Excuses philosophy, and increasingly positive student selection at the times of both entry and reenrollment all contribute to the improvement of the charter sector.

Rather than imposing a Portfolio District that is likely to re-create the dysfunction and failure of traditional school districts, let’s change the system of incentives and allow choice and competition to improve school quality over time.

– Jay P. Greene

Sponsored Results

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform