Cities that Shape Schools

Good schools are an important indicator of the strength of urban communities. Good schools keep families invested in urban living, encourage new businesses, and anchor neighborhoods. To this end, city leaders often support district schools by securing legislative funds, allocating city resources, and partnering with philanthropies.

The shape of America’s urban school systems, however, is changing. For a hundred years, our public school systems were based upon uniformity and central-district management. With the advent of vouchers (1989, Wisconsin), public charter schools (1991, Minnesota), education tax credits (1997, Arizona), and education savings accounts (2011, Arizona), many cities now find their educational landscapes shifting in unforeseen ways.

How does this new context affect the work of City Hall? One route is mayoral control, a model pursued by some twenty cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and New York. In this model, the mayor assumes full responsibility for public education, including the allocation of resources and the improvement of student achievement.

A portfolio strategy offers another path forward.  This model calls upon multiple players – not only the district – to deliver education, while holding all of them to high accountability standards. As the Center for Reinventing Public Education’s Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim put it, the portfolio model “calls for continuous improvement of a city’s schools through managing a mix, or portfolio, of schools—traditional public schools, privately managed schools, and charter schools—and regularly adjusting that mix (opening some and reconstituting others) in light of student needs.”

In contrast to mayoral control, the portfolio strategy allows city leaders to participate in their local school system without taking on the system’s liabilities. As Andy Smarick remarked recently at a conference hosted by the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative and GovEx, the portfolio strategy invites mayoral leadership outside of the district. The mayor’s office could, for instance, seek to become a charter school authorizer; identify the types of schools that families want and support non-profit groups to fill the need; and initiate a city-wide schools scorecard that provides information on a variety of important indicators.

Denver, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, and Indianapolis are among those pursuing a portfolio strategy. Denver’s public schools now include not only district but also charter and innovation schools that serve 18% and 19% of students, respectively. In Detroit, civic leaders formed Excellent Schools Detroit to grade schools and help parents find high-quality options from among the growing number of charter and magnet schools. The Indianapolis mayor’s office serves as a charter-school authorizer, while New Orleans charterized completely (91% of its students) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, Washington, D.C.’s mayoral control catapulted Michelle Rhee to the Chancellorship (2007-2010). Rhee’s tenure was not without controversy. Nevertheless, her high expectations have led to a system in which both district and also charter schools aim for continuous improvement – and seem to be delivering. At the same time, Congress supports a small number of scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.

A number of these experiments show real signs of promise. New Orleans and Washington, D.C., for instance, have made impressive strides in narrowing persistent achievement gaps and boosting academic scores. Others, such as Indianapolis and Detroit, have yet to experience noteworthy gains. Nevertheless, as mayors seek to strengthen their communities, the portfolio school model offers interesting possibilities for collaboration and community engagement.

For more information, see Andy Smarick’s Urban School Systems of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering (2012), and Al Passarella’s Five Cities that Move the Needle.