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  • Do Charters Cause Portfolio or Does Portfolio Cause Charters? Chickens and Eggs Revisited

Do Charters Cause Portfolio or Does Portfolio Cause Charters? Chickens and Eggs Revisited

Last week, Neerav Kingsland made an important argument in his blog about charter market share and cities adopting the portfolio strategy. He wrote:

“I think charter growth begets portfolio more so than portfolio begets portfolio.”


“…without charter market share in the 20-40% range, I don’t think we’ll see many cities adopt [portfolio strategy elements like] unified enrollment, unified accountability, educator autonomy, and a decentralized ecosystem for talent and school supports.”

This prompted me to take a look at cities that have, and haven’t, adopted the portfolio strategy with his lens in mind. While some may fit the “charters beget portfolio” argument, many don’t.


Lots of cities adopted portfolio well before charter market share forced them to do so. Charters hadn’t reached anything like a 20 percent market share in New York City or Denver before Joel Klein and Michael Bennet (respectively) adopted the portfolio strategy. Both NYC and Denver already had a great deal of choice among traditional public schools. Leaders in both cities saw the need to create a level playing field for new and existing schools, give all school leaders similar autonomy, and create fair common enrollment processes. They wanted more charters, but the big charter growth happened after, not before, adoption of the portfolio strategy. The portfolio strategy served to help charter growth.

For that matter, even in New Orleans, there were no charters at all when Recovery School District leaders adopted the portfolio strategy in 2006.

In all these cities, the existence of charters elsewhere sparked leaders’ strategic imagination. But they didn’t adopt the portfolio strategy because competition from charters forced them to do so.
Charters likely contributed to the tipping point in cities like Detroit and Cleveland. But they sought the portfolio strategy only after they were in deep academic crises, exacerbated by enrollment declines caused in part by charter school growth. It’s likely that additional cities with similar mixes of problems will follow suit.

However, high charter market shares aren’t always enough to cause adoption of the portfolio strategy. Look at Dayton and Columbus, two cities with charter enrollment pushing 30 percent but holding on to the traditional system for dear life.

Neerav’s hypothesis that “charters cause portfolio” is one side of the chicken or the egg conundrum. We agree that it’s always worthwhile to increase the numbers of high-quality charters in a city where too few good schools exist. But it doesn’t make sense to regard the portfolio strategy as simply an inevitable response to high charter market share.

Yes, once charter schools serve a high proportion of local students, the portfolio strategy becomes the mechanism for targeting new schools to students no one is trying to serve, supporting cross-sector collaboration on special education, managing fair enrollment processes, and preventing anti-competitive behavior by incumbent school providers. But cities that establish such mechanisms from the beginning can benefit by avoiding a Detroit-style mess featuring a weak school district, lots of mediocre charter authorizers and struggling schools, and an information-poor choice environment for parents.

City leaders can see the advantage of a portfolio strategy even if they now have few charter schools but want more. Cities that can’t attract the big national charter providers can, by adopting the portfolio strategy, encourage development of new schools by local nonprofits, colleges, arts institutions, etc.

Moving to the portfolio strategy is an act of city leadership. It’s always motivated by the need to break out of a static system that makes it nearly impossible to do something about schools that can’t educate kids effectively. Sometimes city leaders overlook these challenges until something—threatened state intervention or a growing charter market share—forces their hands. But sometimes leaders look ahead and see that they can’t get the schools the city needs without creating conditions that encourage entrepreneurship and enable choice.

This argument is not just academic. It matters whether city and charter leaders think ahead and commit to a level playing field for all schools and fair admissions before, not after, they have a malfunctioning market on their hands.

It also matters whether state policymakers try to encourage portfolio adoption by enabling school autonomy, enrollment-based funding, and common accountability for all schools.

Finally, it matters whether philanthropies invest in both the growth of quality charter schools and citywide strategy building and implementation. We can’t afford to neglect chickens in order to focus solely on eggs.

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