A Chalkbeat explainer: What is the ‘portfolio model’ of running schools?

It’s a dramatic rethinking of how to run schools, and it’s taking root in cities across the country.

That was true in late 2017, when Chalkbeat wrote a three-part series on the “portfolio model,” and it’s even more true today.

Since then, a new group known as the City Fund has formed, raising nearly $200 million from big philanthropies to push for some portfolio-style ideas. The concept has been derided by striking teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland. Texas has continued to encourage districts to adopt the model. Recent research has examined how aspects of the approach have worked in Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans.

Just in the last week, influential philanthropist John Arnold tweeted about why he supports the portfolio model; the podcast Have You Heard released an episode on the idea; and Atlanta has moved to deepen its embrace of the portfolio approach, considering a system that would use performance ratings to identify and intervene in struggling schools and help top-rated schools grow. 

Here, we’re rounding up some of our past coverage to answer common questions, including what the heck it means, why it’s so controversial, and whether it “works.”

What is the “portfolio model”?

Imagine a very traditional school district structure. Schools are built where families live, and students are assigned to schools largely based on their addresses. Individual schools rarely open and close, absent big population swings. The district’s administration and a school board create rules for things like hiring and curriculum.

The portfolio model changes many elements of that system.

The idea, as envisioned by advocates, works like this:

  • Students and families choose from a variety of schools that usually include both district and charter schools.
  • Schools have significant autonomy over things like what and how they teach and whom they hire.
  • Schools are held accountable for their students’ performance, measured at least partially through test scores, by the district or another central entity. Successful schools are encouraged to grow or “replicate.” Unsuccessful schools are forced to close or restructure. Sometimes, struggling district schools are turned over to charter school operators or nonprofit organizations.
  • The district, or another entity, coordinates common systems for essentials like enrollment.

It amounts to treating all schools more like charter schools — allowing parents to choose, giving schools autonomy, and putting schools on a performance contract (or “charter”).

Portfolio advocates see this as a better way of managing schools, one that empowers teachers and principals, helps ensure schools are effectively serving students, and gives families more options.

Who’s doing it?

A lot of cities have embraced the model, or key parts of it, though it looks different in each one.

Prominent examples include New Orleans, Denver, Newark, and the central school district of Indianapolis. Other cities, including Atlanta, Camden (New Jersey), Chicago, Lawrence (Massachusetts), and San Antonio, have adopted parts of it or are actively moving in that direction. The state of Texas has also sponsored a support network for districts interested in adopting the portfolio model.

Some cities have created a new breed of schools in the process, like the innovation network in Indianapolis (schools under the auspices of the district but are run by charter or nonprofit groups) and renaissance schools in Camden and partnership schools in Atlanta (district schools taken over by charters).

Local organizations in many of those cities have helped build the infrastructure and shore up political support for the approach. In Indianapolis, for example, the nonprofit The Mind Trust helps fund innovation network schools and a common enrollment system with district and charter schools.

In some places, like Kansas City and Los Angeles, there are some advocates of the model, but the cities still operate schools quite differently. New York City embraced the approach under a previous mayor, but in recent years has backtracked.

There is also a great deal of money behind the concept. The City Fund, an organization formed in 2018, has raised nearly $200 million to encourage cities across the country to adopt aspects of the idea. A leaked presentation obtained by Chalkbeat shows that City Fund eventually aspires to bring the idea to up to 40 cities within a decade. The group is receiving support from major philanthropies, including The Arnold Foundation, Dell Foundation, Gates Foundation, Hastings Fund, and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and Laura and John Arnold are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

In late 2018, the City Fund announced that it had issued grants to local organizations in seven cities and had created a political arm known as Public School Allies.

Why is the portfolio concept controversial?

By allowing non-unionized charters to grow and closing schools seen as ineffective, the portfolio model can mean fewer traditional neighborhood schools, fewer teachers union members, and a fundamental rethinking of the role of school districts.

Closing and opening schools, opponents argue, doesn’t help students and may just add instability in their lives. In their telling, the focus on creating new schools also avoids more important issues like classroom instruction, funding, segregation, and poverty. Meanwhile, some argue that test scores are an unreliable metric, inappropriate for relying on to make weighty decisions about whether a school should remain open.

The expansion of non-unionized schools also means it’s not surprising that teachers unions are usually against the portfolio model.

Some more free market-oriented charter backers oppose the model too, arguing it actually limits school choice by focusing too much on test scores. In fact, Betsy DeVos helped shoot down a portfolio-like proposal for Detroit schools before she became U.S. secretary of education.

Another issue is whether the model is effective at improving schools — critics argue it isn’t. (We’ll discuss this more.)

Finally, the portfolio model is controversial because it’s been adopted by some cities — Camden, New Orleans, and Newark — while their school district was being run by the state. Rutgers scholar Domingo Morel argues that, regardless of the academic success of state takeovers, the practice disenfranchises communities of color. Others also argue that the expansion of privately managed charters, supported by philanthropy, erodes democratic governance of schools.

Is the portfolio model another way of promoting the growth of charter schools?

The portfolio model is tied to the charter school movement. They share philanthropic backers, and portfolio cities like New Orleans, Newark, and Denver have seen rapid charter growth. The City Fund, in its presentation to would-be funders, suggested that charter schools should “often scal[e] to serve 30-50% of students” in its target cities.

So in many cases, yes, the portfolio approach means more and new charter schools.

But it’s also complicated. Plenty of cities without a portfolio approach — Detroit and Kansas City, for instance — have seen charters rapidly expand. Many of the basic principles of the portfolio model can be adopted without charters, and some leaders in districts with few charters have expressed interest in the model. Some advocates say that portfolio can be done outside the charter sector, by giving district schools additional autonomy, like Denver has done with its innovation schools. And in places with already large charter sectors like Detroit and Oakland, some charter supporters have been wary of the model, worrying it would actually be used to limit the growth of charters.

“The portfolio approach is governance-neutral,” wrote Robin Lake the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where the term originated. “It doesn’t matter whether schools are governed by charters, the district, or some other arrangement.”

Does the portfolio model help students?

One way to answer that is to look at the evidence on individual aspects of the approach, such as charter schools and school closures. As measured by test scores, charter schools perform comparably to district schools on average but they do better in cities. School closures usually don’t benefit displaced students, but they can if students move to substantially better schools. Charter takeovers of district schools have helped students in New Orleans and Boston, had no effect in Memphis, and had mixed results in Atlanta.

Another approach is to look at districts that have adopted the model. A series of studies in New Orleans has found that test scores, high school graduation rates, and college attendance and completion all increased substantially after the city adopted the portfolio model and rapidly expanded charter schools.

Interpreting these results is complicated, though, because New Orleans’ schools also saw a huge infusion of funding, and other research has shown that money for schools improves students’ test scores and graduation rates. Despite this, advocates of the portfolio model, including the City Fund, generally say that additional public funding isn’t necessary.

Read our full piece on this question for more details.

Where did this idea come from?

The phrases “portfolio model” and “portfolio management” were coined by Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor. In 1993, Hill founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which continues to study and promote the portfolio model.

“In this new system, school boards would manage a diverse array of schools, some run by the school district and others by independent organizations, each designed to meet the different needs of students,” Hill wrote in 2006. “Like investors with diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds, school boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones.”

Many advocates of the idea now bristle at the term “portfolio,” with its financial overtones. “System of schools,” “family of schools,” and “21st century schools” are often used instead.