inside the playbook

A ‘portfolio’ of schools? How a nationwide effort to disrupt urban school districts is gaining traction

Several years ago, Indianapolis Public Schools looked like a lot of urban school districts. The vast majority of students attended traditional public schools, though enrollment was dwindling, and the district had an adversarial relationship with its small but growing number of charter schools.

That’s no longer true. The district is actively turning over schools to charter operators, and it’s rolling out a common enrollment system for district and charter schools that could make it easier for charters to grow. Nearly half of the district’s students now attend charters or district schools with charter-like freedoms.

It’s a remarkable shift that many in Indianapolis credit to — or blame on — the Mind Trust, a well-funded local nonprofit with a clear vision for improving education in Indianapolis.

Since its founding in 2006, the organization has called for dramatic changes to schools; recruited outside advocacy, teacher training, and charter groups; and spent millions to help launch new charter and district schools. The Mind Trust’s vision has also won support from the school board — which was elected with the financial backing of Stand for Children, an advocacy group recruited by the Mind Trust.

“They’re more influential than the IPS school board and the IPS superintendent,” said MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis public schools advocate who has been critical of the Mind Trust’s role.

Now, a Mind Trust–style organization may be coming to a city near you.

A growing number of philanthropists, advocates, and policymakers say the way to improve schools is to upend the traditional school district. Usually pointing to the same cities as models — Indianapolis, along with Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C. — they want to see more charter schools and more district schools run like charter schools.

In their idealized vision, families are free to choose schools outside their neighborhood using an enrollment system encompassing all schools. The district gives up most of its traditional role setting policy for schools and instead becomes the body holding all kinds of schools accountable by closing ones that don’t succeed.

Together, those ideas make up what’s known as the “portfolio model” for managing schools, and its advocates are making a significant mark on a number of American school districts. Their sights are set on even more.

From Atlanta to Cincinnati to Oakland, a loosely connected network of nonprofit groups is working to reshape the way their school districts function. Their national scope has gone mostly unexamined, even as their influence is arguably far more likely to affect schools in the average American city than a Betsy DeVos-inspired voucher program.

Over time, something close to a playbook has emerged from their work. It’s not an exact sequence, and people within the same camp have different opinions about exactly what it should entail.

This is a look at how we got here, a few of the essential steps to reshaping a traditional school district, and what happens next.

A model emerges: Dozens of cities and millions in support

To understand the growing movement, a good place to start is with Ethan Gray and his organization, Education Cities.

The group started as a project of the Mind Trust, which hired Gray to create a network of peer groups across the country. Gray says his views were deeply influenced by the Mind Trust’s founder and leader David Harris, who helped him “understand how all the different pieces fit together when you’re trying to catalyze major change at the city level.”

Ethan Gray, head of Education Cities.

“Give us the freedom from overly prescriptive regulation and micromanagement, and in turn we will promise to help kids achieve on assessments at a certain level and create a strong school culture,” said Gray, who believes the traditional district model has fallen short, pointing to low test scores and vast achievement gaps.

Those ideas came originally from the academic world, specifically the University of Washington, where a professor named Paul Hill founded the Center on Reinventing Public Education in 1993. There, Hill pushed the idea that the key to improving schools was to rethink school boards.

Instead of operating all schools, boards should oversee them, focusing on which ones do best and worst, he argued. “Like investors with diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds, school boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones,” Hill wrote more than a decade ago.

The stock-market imagery was not a stroke of marketing genius when it came to winning allies in public education, and some advocates still bristle at the term “portfolio.”

“Diane Ravitch and the teachers unions now call us ‘corporate reformers’ and the phrase ‘portfolio model’ plays right into their hands,” said David Osborne, the author of a recent book that rebrands the approach as the “21st century schools” model.

Some charter critics accuse the portfolio model of being a plan to turn all schools into charters, as essentially happened in New Orleans, one of the models for the movement. Osborne argues that districts shouldn’t run schools, instead leaving that to outside groups. Gray insists it can work with district schools, and already is in Denver and Indianapolis.

But even as portfolio advocates differ on some specifics, they are united by broad beliefs, and brought together by unifying hubs. CRPE, the think tank now led by Robin Lake, regularly gathers districts interested in the portfolio model, and Education Cities, which has helped start some of the nonprofit groups, convenes them and offers advice and consulting.

Their work spans the country. Education Cities now counts 32 separate member organizations in 25 cities. So while Gray’s group itself is moderately sized, with around a $2 million budget and a dozen staff members, the ecosystem of independent local groups being built around its ideas is much larger in scope.

Education Cities member groups span the country

Click to enlarge. (Sam Park)

Member groups exist in three cities often promoted as models: in Indianapolis, it’s the Mind Trust. In New Orleans, it’s New Schools for New Orleans. Denver — a district with a self-described portfolio-management team — has two local philanthropies in the Education Cities network, and a new organization recently opened there that Gray says he helped advise.

Potentially representing the next wave of the movement, other member groups operate in cities like Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Oakland, which have not generally embraced the portfolio model.

Those organizations, which Gray calls “quarterbacks,” distribute money to get the portfolio approach off the ground in their cities — supporting schools seen as successful (often both charter and district schools), pushing for policies like common enrollment, and recruiting national education groups like Teach for America, Relay Graduate School of Education, TNTP, and Stand For Children.

Exactly how much money has flowed to support the portfolio model across the country is unclear. But prominent philanthropies, including some that have also spent millions in recent years funding charter schools nationwide, are investing heavily.

Education Cities is supported by a number of them, including the Dell and Walton foundations, as is CRPE. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat. Read more about our funding here.)

Many of the member groups are headed by former charter leaders and receive money from those national foundations, who see their investments as creating proof points that could become models for other cities. The Mind Trust, for instance, says it has raised $77 million since its inception in 2006, the bulk of which cames from local donors and a third from national groups.

The philanthropy that has most clearly embraced the portfolio model is the Arnold Foundation, whose K-12 education work is now led by Neerav Kingsland, the former head of New Schools for New Orleans. The Arnold Foundation has awarded a nearly $2 million grant to Education Cities and millions more to a handful of local quarterback groups, including the Mind Trust.

“If The Mind Trust can help to produce … gains in Indianapolis, the city can serve as a model for other communities across the nation,” John Arnold said in a video explaining his foundation’s investments.

But Education Cities operates on the principle that good ideas alone won’t reshape districts.

“We’re skeptical that systems themselves will actually go through some sort of self-driven transformation,” Gray says.

That’s where the nonprofit “quarterbacks” and their allies come in. They have varying perspectives and priorities, and there isn’t a set sequence of actions that they all take. But for simplicity’s sake, here are three common pieces of their strategy.

Strategy #1: Apply outside pressure.

Rather than waiting for districts to improve their schools, the groups pressure them to change course by directly supporting schools they see as effective and by creating new schools altogether.

The Mind Trust, for instance, partners with Indianapolis Public Schools to help select, fund, and launch new innovation schools. Those schools are run by outside operators, not unionized, and free from district rules around things like teacher pay or length of the school day, though they are officially counted as district schools.

The Philadelphia Schools Partnership, an Education Cities group, funded the opening of five new schools (four charters and one district-run) last school year. Great Public Schools Now, a Los Angeles-based group, pledged nearly $4 million to expand five district schools and has helped pay for a charter school’s new building.

In other cases, that means inviting charter operators to include the local market in their expansion plans, like when the Mind Trust tried to bring the Rocketship charter school network to Indianapolis, though ultimately no Rocketship schools opened there.

The idea is that with new, high-quality schools attracting local students, school districts may have to close their lowest-performing schools to stay solvent — a process some see as a feature, not a bug.

Myrna Castrejón, the head of Great Public Schools Now, at a town hall event. (GPSN)

“To the extent that our expansion creates the urgent need for [district] realignment and closures, I think we would be very supportive of that,” said Myrna Castrejón, the head of Great Public Schools Now.

“We believe strongly [that] schools shouldn’t have an automatic right to taxpayer resources in the absence of effectiveness,” said Mark Gleason, the head of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Advocates for the idea of opening new schools and closing others based on performance often point to New Orleans, where the school district was dismantled after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been almost completely replaced by charter schools. Charters there are largely free to operate as their leaders see fit, but their student performance is monitored, and a number have been closed for low test scores.

Test scores have improved dramatically across New Orleans in the years since, though some of those gains appear to have faded recently. Research found a substantial chunk of the improvements came from closing or replacing existing schools.

But the success of school closures or takeovers is far from guaranteed.

Students’ new schools are not necessarily better; for instance, the Achievement School District in Tennessee, which had charter operators take over district schools and has been praised as a leader in implementing the portfolio model, did not improve test scores.

Districts also don’t always close schools quickly, resulting in students and resources being spread thin across all schools. And when they do shutter schools, communities often resist, worrying about the loss of a local institution.

“I’m concerned about the number and burden of closures on particular communities,” said Terrenda White, a professor at the University of Colorado who has questioned the success of Denver’s school reforms. “That means more risk for displacement of kids and teachers.”

Strategy #2: Push for one-stop school enrollment.

Another piece of the portfolio playbook is supporting enrollment systems that allow families to easily choose among district and charter schools.

Adding new schools and new choices can make things harder on parents, who must navigate several enrollment processes to make a choice and get assigned to a school. Common enrollment systems create a single place to navigate it all — while also ensuring that all parents are exposed to new schools, and making it especially clear to district leaders which schools are attracting the fewest students.

“In addition to efficiency for families, unified enrollment helps the system make better decisions about which schools to replicate, recruit, incubate, scale, and maximize and, perhaps, where to locate them,” according to an Education Cities report.

Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C. all have common enrollment systems, and Indianapolis just adopted one. In Denver, the use of a streamlined system did in fact increase enrollment in charters among low-income students and English-language learners, though in New Orleans parents said it was actually harder to navigate initially.

"We believe strongly schools shouldn’t have an automatic right to taxpayer resources in the absence of effectiveness."Mark Gleason, Philadelphia School Partnership

In places where this system doesn’t exist, Education Cities groups are often pushing for it.

The Philadelphia Schools Partnership created a detailed plan to unify enrollment in the city’s district, charter and private schools, though the idea hasn’t taken off. Oakland-based Educate78 also spearheaded an ultimately unsuccessful effort to create a common system for district and charter schools with a $300,000 grant. The head of SchoolSmartKC, a Kansas City group, has testified before the state legislature in favor of a unified system, though the district’s superintendent says he’s skeptical.

While charter critics see the approach as a veiled effort to expand charters, centralized systems like this have also drawn another surprising adversary: more conservative supporters of school choice.

These free-market charter supporters fear that a single entity — a portfolio manager — with the power to manage enrollment and choose which schools to open and close would actually limit choice, put too much focus on test scores, and risk allowing unions to wrest control of the entire apparatus.

In fact, in 2016 it was Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, who was the key opponent of a plan to create a commission to act like a portfolio manager in Detroit, an effort spearheaded by an Education Cities member group in the city.

Strategy #3: Create a very different power structure.

Outside groups like the Education Cities quarterbacks can only do so much to implement this vision.

To see it brought to life requires the buy-in of the school board, mayor, or state — whoever runs the schools. That’s why the portfolio approach has gained particular traction in districts where states have taken over the schools, including New Orleans, Newark, and Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The groups and schools that the Indianapolis-based Mind Trust — whose logo is at the center — have supported. (The Mind Trust)

In other instances, supporters of charter schools have pushed change in school districts by working to fill local school boards with people sympathetic to the portfolio model.

Indianapolis is a case in point. The Mind Trust recruited Stand For Children, an advocacy organization that supports political candidates. In the 2012 election, Stand-endorsed candidates shifted control of the school board.

The organization doesn’t have to disclose how much it spent to support school board members in the city, but Stand for Children’s annual report says that in 2012, it “help[ed] elect two new members to the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which [led] to the exit of an ineffective superintendent.” The report also claims credit for school board victories in 2014 and 2016.

The capture of the school board cleared the way for many subsequent changes, including the hiring of a superintendent Lewis Ferebee who has supported a portfolio vision of the school district.

“If you look at Indianapolis, there’s no way to implement the vision without democratically controlled support,” Gray said.

School boards favorable to a portfolio-aligned vision have also been elected in Denver and more recently in Los Angeles, with financial backing from wealthy advocates of charter schools. Those charter school supporters have matched and sometimes exceeded spending by unions in a number of school board races previously dominated by teachers groups.

The portfolio model undercuts the unions and associations that represent teachers in other ways. The biggest is by reducing the number of schools whose teachers belong to the union, diminishing the union’s membership — and thus its power and its money.

The degree to which this is true depends on the political climate: in Indianapolis, innovation network schools are not under the district’s collective bargaining agreement, and thus lose certain job protections. Denver’s innovation schools can waive certain parts of the union contract, though teachers can still choose to join the union.

But most charter schools are not unionized. In New Orleans, soon after Hurricane Katrina teachers in the existing district were unilaterally fired, gutting the United Teachers of New Orleans, which has since organized at a handful of charters.

To some advocates, the reduction in union strength is integral to the model. They see an entrenched bureaucracy, maintained by “adult interests” — usually code for teachers unions — as the problem, and the portfolio vision as the solution.

“More than any other single reform this model breaks the political stranglehold interest groups have over elected school boards,” writes Osborne in his book “Reinventing America’s Schools.” (Osborne recently compared teachers unions’ opposition to charter school expansion in Massachusetts to George Wallace’s promotion of mandated school segregation.) Osborne’s work has been funded by prominent philanthropic supporters of charter schools and the portfolio model: the Arnold, Broad, and Walton foundations.

Some worry about the role of philanthropy, big-money donors, and state takeovers as undermining local, democratic control.

"We’re skeptical that systems themselves will actually go through some sort of self-driven transformation."Ethan Gray, Education Cities

“As elected school board members, once our term is up, we come back up for consideration,” said Jennifer Wolfsie, a school board member in Kansas City. “If the constituents I serve are not happy they have the opportunity … to vote me out,” she said. “In philanthropy, there isn’t that process.”

Huriya Jabbar, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied New Orleans schools post-Katrina, acknowledges the large test-score gains in the city as a result of the reforms. But, she said, that came with a cost: community buy-in, in the wake of the mass dismissal of New Orleans’ largely black teaching force and the state takeover of most of the city schools.

“Even advocates of the reforms have acknowledged that the one thing they got wrong was community,” Jabbar said. “And I think of that as quite a big thing.”

The future: The portfolio idea in the DeVos era

Exactly how far these groups will be able to push their school districts toward a new way of running its schools is unclear. Few places are like Indianapolis or Denver, with strong political support for the model — and New Orleans’ hurricane-induced changes make it entirely unique.

New quarterback-style groups have continued to emerge, including ones recently formed in Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, and Memphis. But other Education Cities members have faced setbacks.

In Nashville, the group Project Renaissance recently scaled back its operations, and despite heavy involvement from Stand for Children, charter skeptics maintained control of the school board in elections last year. A Detroit group also recently closed down, though the Skillman Foundation there remains an Education Cities member.

One place where there is no Education Cities group: New York City, which under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was held up as a model by portfolio advocates like Paul Hill. That approach was substantially altered by Bloomberg’s replacement, Bill de Blasio, who has been cool to charters, slowed school closures, and reduced principals’ autonomy.

These setbacks underscore the challenges portfolio advocates will face in advancing their vision. Even its supporters disagree on a number of points — how clear their case is for a nationwide expansion, what strategies to pursue, and whether the model can work for district-run schools.

Meanwhile, the effort comes in a perilous time for charter school supporters, as nationwide support has dropped and they have become linked to an unpopular president and education secretary.

But for left-of-center charter backers, the portfolio approach presents an opportunity to position their brand of school choice as distinct from DeVos and other conservatives, who emphasize private school vouchers and want few limits on parent choice.

“Our model is probably different from the model of the [Trump] administration, and it’s not the same model of, if you would, a traditional school district,” said Henderson Lewis Jr., the head of the district that oversees New Orleans charters, in a recent interview. “We’re somewhere in the middle, which I see as a third way.”

This is part one of a three-part series. Part two takes a closer look at how the portfolio movement has played out in one city; the third part examines what research says about this emerging strategy.

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research shows

Advocates of the portfolio model for improving schools say it works. Are they right?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Author David Osborne is sure that his vision for improving schools is the right one: “If you discovered a cure for cancer, but it was politically difficult with your union, would you avoid it?”

Neerav Kingsland, another proponent of the idea known as the “portfolio” model, is also optimistic but more cautious. “There’s enough evidence to try it in eight to 10 cities and see if we get good results,” said Kingsland, who leads one foundation’s efforts to parcel out funding for the approach.

“This reform effort might work and so I think it’s really worth trying,” Kingsland said. “We just need to be sober with the evidence.”

As with many education policies, the portfolio model is gaining adherents even while an research base is still being built. Those philanthropists, nonprofit groups, and policymakers — like Kingsland at the Arnold Foundation and Osborne, on a multi-city book tour promoting the approach — are betting big on the idea that schools should be managed more like stocks in a portfolio, where successful ones should expand and failing ones should close.

They point to schools in New Orleans, Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C., cities that have embraced the model to varying degrees and have seen some education metrics tick up over the last several years.

Whether that amounts to an open-and-shut case for the model is less clear. Here’s a guide to what we do know, and how you can weigh the claims.

First, you should know: It’s difficult to study the portfolio approach, because it’s not a single idea.

Instead, it’s a package of policies that get grouped together, usually put in place across a whole district or city. That’s why comparing districts that have tried the portfolio approach to ones that haven’t is arguably the best approach for finding out whether it “worked.”

But school districts are complicated. Totally different policy changes, or shifting demographics like an influx of wealthier or poorer students, can affect districts too. Without controlling for all of that, a school district’s improvement doesn’t tell us much. That’s where rigorous research comes in.

But there is little or no rigorous research comparing gains in Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington D.C. to similar districts that have gone in a different direction. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked in those places — it’s just hard to know.

Second, the gains in New Orleans make a case for the portfolio model.

The city that has most clearly embraced the portfolio approach, New Orleans, has seen big academic achievement gains relative to other districts in the state.

PHOTO: Tulane University's Education Research Alliance
Student achievement in New Orleans increased relative to similar school districts.

These results were not because of changes in the types of students in the city, according to a Tulane study, and the effects were quite large — akin to seeing the average student in New Orleans gain 8 to 15 percentile points on state tests relative to other Louisiana students between 2007 and 2012. The package of policies also coincided a sharp increase in high school graduation and college attendance.

A national analysis also found that New Orleans students made large academic gains between 2009 and 2015. However, more recent test scores in the city have suggested that schools are backsliding somewhat.

But even those results don’t prove New Orleans’ academic success came from the portfolio model.

A significant share of the city’s academic gains seems to have come from closing low-performing schools. Less talked about — and generally not discussed as part of the portfolio approach — is the substantial infusion of money for schools. This was not just a one-time grant of cash to help schools rebuild: Even several years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools were spending nearly $1,500 more per student than districts that previously spent the same amount on their schools.

“In most of the places that are thinking about this [model], they’re not thinking, OK, let’s increase spending 15 percent the way they did in New Orleans,” said Doug Harris, the researcher who conducted the Tulane study.

That raises another question about the portfolio model: Even if it succeeded in New Orleans — a very specific context — is it likely to succeed elsewhere?

There’s helpful research on a few other cities. It comes to a mix of conclusions.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, one study found that the state’s takeover of the district led to substantial gains in math, modest improvements in English, and a growing share of students progressing through high school on schedule. The gains seem to have been driven in large part by expanded learning time, particularly small group tutoring over vacation breaks for certain students.

Lawrence’s approach included aspects of the portfolio model — including a focus on autonomy and accountability — but not others, like school choice.

In Newark, controversial reforms spurred by a $100 million gift from Mark Zuckerberg seem to have had mixed success. Five years later, schools in Newark have higher growth rates in English, but not in math, according to a recent Harvard study, which also found a decline in performance in both subjects in the first three years of change.

The changes in Newark included closing down low-scoring district schools, expanding higher-performing charters, and creating a common enrollment system. Efforts to shift students to better schools seem to have been successful, but existing schools often got worse.

Perhaps the most disappointing results for the portfolio approach come from Memphis. A Vanderbilt analysis found that a state takeover effort known as the Achievement School District failed to raise test scores, even as it was dubbed a “national exemplar” in implementing the portfolio model. Another approach known as the iZone, which granted other Tennessee schools more autonomy, did lead to improvements, according to the same study.

Most of these studies can’t definitively show which specific changes were more or less successful, though.

Studying the portfolio model as a whole is hard. So let’s separate the parts: We do know a lot about charter schools and where they work best (at raising test scores).

Research on charter schools is especially relevant, since the portfolio approach essentially aims to treat every school like a charter — and often leads to a growing charter sector.

A number of national studies show that their charter school students perform about the same as those in nearby district schools. Evidence on charter schools’ long-run impact is still thin.

But research focusing specifically on charters in cities and their impact on disadvantaged students paint a brighter picture. Most studies do show that, in that context, charters — particularly those in nonprofit, city-based networks — are more likely to boost test scores. That’s also been shown in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, and New York City.

Supporters of the portfolio model can point to these successes to support their approach, which is focused on cities. There are questions, though, about whether those charter schools perform well in part for reasons other than better teaching, like attracting more girls than boys, not filling empty seats in later grades, or getting substantial amounts of outside money.

School closures can help if students have better options.

The portfolio model emphasizes holding schools accountable for performance — which may mean closing them.

The research on closures has found that in some cases it helps students, in others it hurts them, and sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. Recently, a large national study found that closing low-achieving schools had no overall effect on the displaced students’ test scores.

However, there is strong evidence that, as happened in New Orleans, when students leave closed schools for ones with better test scores, their scores improve, too — and that is closely in line with the theory of portfolio advocates.

Whether school autonomy, another aspect of the portfolio model, really boosts learning is unclear.

On its own, giving district schools more authority over operations like staffing and curriculum has not been shown to consistently improve student learning. For instance, modest efforts along these lines in Boston and Denver haven’t boosted test scores. But results are more positive for Indianapolis’s “innovation schools” and Tennesse’s iZone, both instances where schools were granted additional freedom.

As for negative side effects like increasing segregation, there’s not a lot of research to go on.

Critics of the portfolio model say there will be negative consequences of the model, beyond any changes in test scores. Some of these — like the potential reduction in democratic control caused from letting outside operators runs schools — aren’t about data or research.

Does the portfolio model increase school segregation? Charter schools, which have often expanded in portfolio districts, have been shown in some cases to exacerbate segregation. In districts that have adopted the portfolio approach, the pattern isn’t clear: In New Orleans, the expansion of charters and the portfolio approach had little net effect on segregation, but charter schools in Indianapolis do seem to exacerbate segregation. In Denver the share of students who attend economically segregated schools has dropped moderately since 2012.

Does the portfolio model mean sweeping out veteran teachers of color and replacing them with white teachers? New Orleans has seen a significant decline in the share of black teachers — from about 70 percent to nearly 50 percent — in the wake of the changes, though the loss of black teachers has been seen in a number of other cities as well (including some that didn’t implement portfolio-style changes).

Are there other negative side effects? Some New Orleans principals have acknowledged pushing out low-performing students. (Policymakers have made efforts to address that, though there hasn’t been follow-up research to examine whether those changes have been successful.)

Another concern: expansion of charters in New Orleans coincided with a decline in the number of schools offering prekindergarten, which has been shown to benefit students in the long run.

One potential downside that doesn’t seem to have come to pass in New Orleans: an increase in students moving between schools, which can be disruptive. If anything, the opposite happened, and students changed schools less often.

This is the final part of a three-part series. Part one looks at the push to expand the portfolio model in cities across the country; part two examines how the portfolio movement has played out in one city.

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local buy-in

In Kansas City, national push for portfolio model gives way to local group with similar message, different methods

PHOTO: SchoolSmart Kansas City
At SchoolSmart Kansas City's launch in April, Awais Sufi, right, stands next to Kansas City Mayor Sly James and Kaufman Foundation President Wendy Guillies (far left).

In 2013, a plan to reshape Kansas City’s schools was essentially run out of town.

Four years later, a group with a similar policy agenda, some of same key funders, and whose leaders get advice from the engineers of the first plan, is making inroads.

What changed? The new group, SchoolSmartKC, is making a concerted effort to get local leaders bought in. Some of them say the group’s head, Awais Sufi, has genuinely listened to their feedback even as he pushes for systemic changes to the way Kansas City’s schools operate.

“Through those dialogues certainly there was a lot of discussion of challenges of the past, frustrations folks had about things that had happened,” Sufi said. “I tried to weave all of that into what I would hope to be a thoughtful approach that could build consensus.”

SchoolSmart has carved out its own niche by backing community schools, while also embracing much of what is known as the “portfolio” model for managing schools. The idea — including common enrollment and accountability systems for district and charter schools — has gained traction in a number of cities nationwide as a growing network of well-heeled groups like SchoolSmart are pushing for districts to adopt this approach.

Kansas City is a case study in how that vision is being advanced city by city — and why some national groups that continue to fund and support the approach have taken a backseat in favor of local actors.

What happened: A dramatic plan, then intense backlash

The 2013 plan was hatched by Ethan Gray, a nonprofit leader who founded an organization called CEE-Trust in Indianapolis. (CEE-Trust became Education Cities soon after.) He had been hired by Missouri’s education department to analyze how state control could turn around Kansas City’s schools. The report was funded by the Kauffman and Hall foundations, influential local philanthropies.

It was an odd arrangement — private donors backing a study that would then be released through a government agency — and it set off alarm bells with a local community group called More2, which filed a public records request for information about Gray’s contract.

“Emails detail a hidden plan for Kansas City Public Schools,” blared a headline in the Kansas City Star in December 2013, based on information from More2. The paper described “a rushed bidding process, now criticized, that ultimately landed Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust a $385,000 contract to develop a long-range overhaul for the district’s failing schools.”

The problem was state contracts have to go through government bidding processes, and the emails suggested that Missouri officials planned all along to use Gray’s group. (The state auditor later criticized the process, saying it “raise[d] questions regarding the independence and objectivity of the report’s findings.”)

No matter, the CEE-Trust plan was released in January 2014. It made the case that Kansas City schools were failing, and that city school districts as a concept were beyond saving. “Simply put, the traditional urban school system does not work. It is not stable. It does not serve the needs of its students. It does not, nor has it ever, produced the kind of results all children, families, and taxpayers deserve,” the report said.

To fix it, the report suggested adopting the portfolio approach for managing schools: schools should be free from most regulations; families should be able to choose among schools, which would in turn be judged by their outcomes; while the district would coordinate crucial functions like enrollment. It also drew substantially from a 2011 blueprint released by the Indianapolis-based Mind Trust, the nonprofit that created CEE-Trust and where Gray had worked.

Cities that have embraced this approach, including Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, have seen their charter sectors expand. In some cases, district schools have been given charter-like autonomy, too.

The substance of the plan, the group that wrote it, and the process for how it came about all drew substantial negative attention in the city. A coalition, including the city teachers union and NAACP, formed to oppose it, and when the report was presented to the state board, Gray was met with protests. A columnist in the Star wrote in late 2014 that CEE-Trust’s “brand is toxic among some Kansas City education circles.”

Gray tried to counter the opposition by writing an open letter to Kansas City teachers.

“Over the past several months, those who benefit by keeping the current system in place have consistently misrepresented our beliefs and what our plan would mean for you,” he wrote.

Fast forward to August of 2014: Ultimately, the state would not take over Kansas City’s schools, which made enough progress on state tests to avoid losing accreditation. That made Gray’s plan essentially moot.

Gray says his group, now called Education Cities, is not going to going to be a leading voice like that again.

“It’s not a role we anticipate playing frequently in the future,” he said. “We don’t want to be out in front of this conversation — we want to be supporting local leaders who are pursuing this kind of work.”

Gray is now focused on a growing national network of over 30 loosely connected independent nonprofits — some in places like Denver, where the model is already established, and others in cities like Kansas City, where their task is to push for change.

An Education Cities member emerges in Kansas City

Like the CEE-Trust plan was, SchoolSmart KC is funded by the Hall and Kauffman foundations. SchoolSmart favors many of the policies favored by Education Cities, including tough accountability rules and a common enrollment system for district, as well as charter schools, which enroll about 40 percent of public school students in the district. Gray says his organization “helped do some of the original strategic planning” for SchoolSmart, which is now part of the Education Cities network.

But the Kansas City organization has taken a markedly different — and more successful — approach to garnering support. It’s also helped that it isn’t operating in the shadow of a potential state takeover of schools.

SchoolSmart’s head, Awais Sufi, a Topeka native, spent a year doing community outreach before the group launched in April.

“I’ve probably visited 75, 80 percent of the [Kansas City] schools; I have talked to the district leadership, the charter leadership, the associations, parents, families, community members, faith organizations, business leaders,” Sufi said.

That community engagement work helped define the group’s strategy for improving the city’s schools, Sufi said, and he hopes that outreach will help “garner sufficient support from the community so that it can be really driven and sustained over time.”

That strategy is broadly aligned with Education Cities. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re lockstep with [Education Cities], but through our community-driven process we’ve come to similar frameworks,” Sufi said.

Like a number of Education Cities’ members, SchoolSmart is investing in individual schools and pushing for certain policy changes that the group believes will improve student outcomes. It’s set a 10-year goal of increasing the number of Kansas City schools — many of which currently lag behind on state tests — performing at the Missouri average.

SchoolSmart has awarded $500,000 to a science and tech-focused charter school and another $2 million to help two existing charter schools expand. About $1.5 million each went to a high-performing district and a charter school to help them grow.

Consistent with the portfolio model, Sufi emphasizes accountability for schools and the importance of ensuring “families are well-positioned to navigate the complex systems,” and emphasizing performance over sector. SchoolSmart just announced a $750,000 grant to Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit that helps families choose schools for their children.

In some ways, though, SchoolSmart seems to be treading its own path. Sufi says he is less focused on giving schools more freedom from district rules, and the group has also given over half a million dollars to fund wrap-around services meant to help poor students at several district and charter schools — not a key tenet of the portfolio model.

So far the approach seems to have paid off: the reception has been much more favorable than that of CEE-Trust.

“I’ve had a good relationship working with Awais,” said Mark Bedell, the superintendent of the Kansas City public schools. Bedell and Kansas City Mayor Sly James were present at the group’s launch event in April

Jennifer Wolfsie, a Kansas City school board member, who as a parent activist was critical of CEE-Trust, said SchoolSmart has acted on outside input.

“I had talked with Awais about that we need that sort of support and I know Dr. Bedell really pushed him on that,” she said, referring to the community schools grants. “What I feel that is an example of is Awais and [SchoolSmart KC] actually listening to the community they’re trying to serve and then responding accordingly — and that’s a positive.”

The school district also appreciates SchoolSmart’s focus on the performance of charter schools, not just their growth.

“SchoolSmart KC … has made it a point to the legislators and the state board of education that charter accountability is a very important component of what they’re talking about,” said Natalie Allen, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief spokesperson. “They’re working to strategically expand schools, [but] they’re doing it only if that school is a high-performing school.”

And unlike CEE-Trust, SchoolSmart has garnered positive local press, mostly focusing on its ambitious goals, and the schools and initiatives the group is funding.

Questions about common enrollment, role of philanthropy

That doesn’t mean that everyone sees eye to eye in Kansas City.

Bedell, the district superintendent, says that SchoolSmart may be too focused on creating new schools and expanding successful ones at the expense of helping existing, low-performing schools.

“I think the only concern that I have is their initial focus has been primarily on schools that are emerging, schools that are high performing,” he said. “You want to really move an urban school system like ours, you have a larger share of your schools that are low performing, we need to put resources in those schools.”

But, Bedell said, “Fortunately, [Sufi] listened to that and [SchoolSmart] provided support for me and some of my schools that have been struggling.”

SchoolSmart KC has also promoted the idea of a common enrollment system for district and charter schools.

“Participation in common, unified enrollment systems must also be required so that all families have equal access to schools,” Sufi said in recent testimony to the Missouri state legislature. “Such a system will also promote equity where our least advantaged families have equal access to quality options.”

Bedell is skeptical of this idea.

“Nope, not interested in it,” he said flatly, saying that he believed some charter schools were selectively enrolling and pushing out certain students, which made it difficult to build a positive relationship between the two sectors.

“One of the things that we’re looking to do is go and visit some of the other cities — Denver, Indianapolis, Camden — where the [district–charter] partnerships are working well,” said Bedell. Incidentally, those are three cities often promoted by advocates of the portfolio model.

Meanwhile, some remain wary of who is funding SchoolSmart. In addition to local philanthropies, SchoolSmart identifies the Walton Foundation as one of its core investors. Sufi said Hall, Kaufman, and Walton had together made a 10-year funding commitment of over $50 million.

“Philanthropy can have its own agenda too — that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think everybody just needs to be aware,” said Wolfsie, the Kansas City school board member. “Funders, they have a say what [SchoolSmart KC’s] strategic direction probably will be — otherwise they may not fund.”

Both the Walton and Kauffman foundations have been strong supporters of charter schools; Kauffman even founded its own (high-performing) charter school in Kansas City.

Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, said that national donors like the Walton Foundation, are more likely to be successful when partnering with local groups. “That’s a really effective strategy, if they’re enrolling more of these local community foundations that have a lot of credibility in the community, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like this is being imposed from a national foundation,” she said.

Sufi, for his part, said his group is truly independent — not beholden to its funders, Education Cities, or the history of CEE-Trust’s efforts.

“The only way I was willing to come into this work was to have a meeting of the minds with the philanthropy around town that was interested in supporting this work,” he said. “You will see through our grantmaking, through our efforts, in every direction we are supporting the system writ large.”

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one looks at the push to expand the portfolio model in cities across the country; the third part examines what research says about this emerging strategy.

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