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What role does state policy play in the portfolio model?

• Sam Duell

What role does state policy play in the portfolio model? The short answer: you won’t have great portfolio cities without supportive state policy.

But first, let’s set the context. Neerav Kingsland announced last week the formation of an education supergroup called The City Fund. The City Fund’s mission is to expand educational opportunity for all children in cities across the U.S., and Chalkbeat claimed that the group will invest in the portfolio model. While I believe that the new group’s work will likely be a bit broader than that, I thought it would be helpful to explain how the portfolio strategy has been defined as a means of decentralizing the traditional district office, empowering principals and individual schools to make the most critical decisions. (See our previous post “What is the portfolio model?”)

Over the last few years, the meaning of portfolio strategy broadened to include district-charter compacts and the role of city-based quarterbacks (formerly known as harbormasters) who lead an education reform strategy within a specific geography. Organizations like The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, Choose to Succeed in San Antonio and New Schools for New Orleans led the way in the late aughts and early teens. These two efforts, district-charter compacts and city-based quarterbacks, are like cousins to the previously described portfolio strategy and it is common for the media and policymakers to combine all three under one umbrella term: the portfolio model. This is probably part of the reason why the term is controversial. When we don’t define our terms, it leads to misunderstanding.

Second, as a reminder that all movements exist within larger context, The City Fund is not the only reform effort focused on local government. For example, David Brooks recently wrote a column in The New York Times proclaiming  “localism is the belief that power should be wielded as much as possible at the neighborhood, city and state levels.” Brooks says, “Localism is also thriving these days because many cities have more coherent identities than the nation as a whole.” His cheery outlook is evidence that The City Fund is not unaccompanied in turning their attention to cities.

This is nothing new for education. For example, when the U.S. Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in December 2015, EdWeek’s early analysis said the legislation, “rolls back much of the federal government’s big footprint in education policy.” Since that time, states and local school boards have become more vital to the success of students, not less. The City Fund is simply directing attention where there’s influence.

With all this attention on cities, you might wonder what role state policy plays in the success of the portfolio model? The quick answer: portfolio models would not exist in their current form without the right state policy conditions. Here are three examples.

  • Charter School Policy – Of the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s(CRPE) 35 portfolio cities, each one resides in states with charter school laws. You simply don’t get portfolio cities without charter school policy. There are currently 44 states, Washington, D.C. and two U.S. territories with charter school statutes. These laws vary widely and are passed and amended at the state level. It could be argued that the famed district-charter collaboration at Spring Branch, Texas, would not have happened without the prior success of KIPP Public Schools and YES Prep. And those schools wouldn’t exist without a charter school statute. The same is true for the Recovery School District in Louisiana, mayor-sponsored charter schools in Indiana or the SUNY Charter Schools Institute in New York.
  • Performance-Based Accountability – One of the most foundational tenets of the portfolio model relates to measuring student outcomes. While this policy has evolved and continues to evolve over time, the principle of measuring student outcomes (whether it’s growth, proficiency or both) remains an essential component for understanding what works for students and what doesn’t. States have played a critical role in encouraging districts to communicate their performance with parents. Whether it’s an A-F school report card or some other outcome-based measure codified in state policy, portfolio cities regularly use this information to understand and communicate academic progress. In this case, the courage of states to measure and report what matters has allowed portfolio cities to address difficult conversations regarding inequitable educational opportunity.
  • Pupil-Based Budgeting – This is the idea that states and local school boards should fund individual students based on their needs rather than the salary or experience of the teachers in their school. ExcelinEd has written and advocated extensively on this issue and so has the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and Education Resource Strategies.

    States play a pivotal role in ensuring that local school districts have the latitude to weight funding based on individual student needs. For example, California implemented the Local Control Funding Formula in 2013, replacing the previous 40-year-old finance system. Without the state-level leadership to fund individual students based on their unique needs, portfolio models would never reach full implementation.

All this to say, portfolio cities and their efforts to expand educational opportunity critically depend on state education policy. Cities and states matter now more than ever. They should work together.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.