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Don’t Neglect Districts in the Effort to Advance Portfolio from the Outside

Re:portfolio is a monthly publication of articles, news clips, and resources about the portfolio strategy for civic and education leaders. This post comes from the second edition, in which we discuss outside-in approaches for reform. If you like what you’re reading or have questions for us, we hope you’ll reach out to crpe@uw.edu. Sign up here to receive the newsletter every month, straight to your inbox.

School districts are often hamstrung by an “operating system” that makes transformative change difficult. That is the unspoken reason why some states, funders, and nonprofits have sought to drive the portfolio strategy from the outside, by bringing new organizations into play. They might launch new charter schools, create “quarterback” or “harbormaster” organizations, or look to supplement district operations with other nonprofits. At the extreme, they might advocate for a state takeover. 

These outside-in approaches carry obvious advantages. At least in the short term, they allow supporters of the portfolio strategy to rack up wins without having to work directly with districts—who they often view as recalcitrant. Done well, these approaches can result in the rapid growth of new, high-quality schools or an infusion of money and talent into systems badly in need of both. 

But even if outside-in efforts start strong, they risk stalling out if they don’t bring meaningful change to the district itself.

  • Most outside-in approaches ultimately need to reconcile with the district to rationalize oversight, provide schools equitable funding, and address systemic issues that affect family access to high-quality schools (e.g., fair and transparent enrollment systems). Outsiders rarely possess authority to do any of these things on their own and can be stymied by actors they do not directly control. Inadequate transportation and enrollment systems are more than inconveniences. Dissatisfaction among parents or teachers can increase pressure to “undo” outsider-initiated reforms. 
  • While outside-in approaches can be insulated from the political pressures that stall district-led reform efforts, that doesn’t mean they can escape politics. Local political forces can still restrain or even tame them—especially in the longer term. A lack of community buy-in and the perception that “outsiders” cannot be held accountable can spark community backlash. 
  • Finally, efforts to launch new charter schools rarely happen fast enough to serve all students in need. If charter schools aren’t part of a broader improvement strategy, and districts haven’t planned ahead, charter growth can undermine districts’ financial stability with a spiral of rising costs, declining resources, and struggling under-enrolled schools. Rather than outside-in approaches driving a “tipping point” that forces districts to compete and improve, they may harm students left behind in struggling district schools.

These limitations of an outsider strategy could be the death knell of the portfolio strategy in some cities. But they don’t have to be. We have seen a growing number of states, harbormasters, and other change agents helping district leaders rewrite their operating systems—rather than working around them.

Before New Orleans’ public schools returned to local control, policymakers rewrote the district operating system by enshrining a common enrollment system and weighted student funding system—as well as staff committed to a strategy of overseeing a system of autonomous public schools. 

It may be possible to rewrite the district operating system without a wholesale takeover or a major shift toward charter schools. Change can start with small wins: In Oakland, parent advocates convinced district leaders to give students in closing schools enrollment preference at in-demand schools. 

In Texas, the state is working at a larger scale, explicitly targeting the district operating system with an initiative to transform districts across the state to build continuously improving systems of schools.
It’s too early to say whether these efforts will bring meaningful change to district operating systems. They no doubt involve frustration. Still, they represent cases of outsiders driving change inside districts. Change moves slowly. Progress is not linear. To achieve sustained success in influencing portfolio strategy implementation in the longer term, outsiders and insiders need each other.

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