How a Portfolio District Differs from a School District: A Response to Jay Greene

Our school reformy friend from Detroit writes:

While waiting to be picked up by a taxi I read Jay Greene’s recent blog post on portfolio districts. The cabby who picked me up was familiar—we had talked before about Detroit schools and the idea of adopting a portfolio strategy there.

I couldn’t wait to tell him about Jay Greene’s blog: “This clever guy from Arkansas says there is no point adopting a portfolio strategy because it will just reproduce the old school district.”

He was startled.  “I guess I just missed the point when we talked last time. I thought a portfolio strategy meant that lots of groups ran the schools and the district ran none or just a few. Was I confused?”

“No,” I said, “I guess that’s the one way portfolio is not the same as a school district.”

“Oh,“ he said, “so under a portfolio the district employs all the teachers.”

“No,” I said, “teachers work for schools, not the district.”

“But the unions must still control who works in a school and what work they can do,” the cabbie said.

“No, that’s another difference, I guess.”

Removing his cap to scratch his head, the cabbie said, “But a portfolio strategy must keep a big central office that keeps half the money and tells the schools what to do.”

Sighing, I said, “No, under a portfolio strategy the central office is tiny and the money goes straight to schools so they can choose teachers, books, activities, and so on.”

“I guess it all boils down to choice,” said the cabbie. “The district must tell families where they can send kids to school.”

“No,” I said, “families choose. The portfolio strategy just means that someone makes sure every family has good choices.”

“Well doc,” the cabbie said, “you are just too subtle for me. If a portfolio strategy isn’t the same as a school district in all these ways, why say it is the same? I learned about literary license as an English major at Michigan State, but this sounds more like saying up is down.”

“Well,” I said, “I think Jay Greene believes that government should just wait for the market to work itself out instead of trying to move things along.”

“Oh,” said the cabbie, “you mean making sure all the school operators tell the truth about their performance and don’t avoid working with kids from tough neighborhoods?”

“Yes,” I said, “Greene said we should just give the market time.”

“I got it,” said the cabbie. “But what if parents of kids left out sue, or parents join with the teachers’ union yelling to bring back the old district? Will it work to say, “Just wait?”

“Hmm,” I said, “I wonder.”

“Me too,” said the cabbie. “Funny, the one thing I remember from the economics course I was forced to take in college, some Englishman said the market will work in the long run, but in the long run we will all be dead.”

Embarrassed, I admitted, “I didn’t see any chance of convincing Detroit parents to put up with the current mess knowing their grandkids might get better schools.”

– Robin Lake and Ashley Jochim

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where Ashley Jochim is research analyst.  They, along with Michael DeArmond, wrote “Fixing Detroit’s Broken School System,” in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next.

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