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.

Want more from Chalkbeat today? Sign up for our new national newsletter here.

the portfolio push

With big names and $200 million, a new group is forming to push for the ‘portfolio model’

An advisory period in a classroom at Washington Latin Public Charter School, in Northwest Washington, D.C. (Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Several big names in education reform are teaming up to start a new organization designed to change how schools are managed in cities across the U.S. — and they say they’ve already raised $200 million.

The City Fund, as the group is being called, will push cities to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy. It represents a big increase in visibility and influence for advocates of the “portfolio model” of running schools, a strategy that’s been adopted by cities like New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis.

The group was announced Tuesday morning on the blog of Neerav Kingsland, who leads education giving at The Laura and John Arnold Foundation. According to a separate presentation created by the group and viewed by Chalkbeat, the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund have already given the group over $200 million. It’s unclear if the organization has raised additional funds.

Although the group is likely to start in a small number of cities, that presentation also made its ambitions clear: it aspires to eventually be in “every city in America.”

Others involved include Chris Barbic of the Arnold Foundation; Kevin Huffman, the former Tennessee education chief; David Harris, who previously led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group; and Ethan Gray, the president of the nonprofit Education Cities.

“We believe that school systems can succeed when schools operate with autonomy while being held accountable for strong student results,” the group said in a job posting, which has since been taken down.

The group will be advocating for a brand of school reform that has gained traction in a number of cities, but remains controversial.

The basic idea is that families should be able to choose among different schools, and that those schools should be free to operate as they see fit. In addition, schools should be held accountable for their performance — largely based on test scores — with good ones growing and bad ones closing, while an oversight body coordinates essential functions like enrollment across schools.

Cities that have adopted much or all of this portfolio approach include Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, as well as Camden and Newark, New Jersey. In each of those cities, charter schools have expanded rapidly. Some of those cities also have a hybrid, where district schools are granted charter-like autonomy or charter operators take over district schools.

“Cities across the country are constantly innovating, and when a few cities do something that seems to be working, philanthropy can help shine a light on these local successes,” the group’s blog post says.

The City Fund’s founders have experience with those cities. Kingsland ran New Schools for New Orleans, a group that coordinated education advocacy and philanthropy in that city after Hurricane Katrina. As Tennessee commissioner, Huffman helped create the state’s Achievement School District, which Barbic ran and which turned district schools over to charters. Harris led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis group that influenced the education strategy of the city’s central district. Gray’s Education Cities has spent the last several years convening local nonprofits pushing these ideas in two dozen cities.

But Education Cities’ budget was around $3 million in 2016. The City Fund’s aspirations — and budget — appear to be much bigger.

If the $200 million figure is designed to last for several years, the City Fund would remain significantly smaller than the biggest players in education philanthropy, though large enough to make an impact. The Walton Foundation spent about $191 million on U.S. education in just 2016, for example, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent about $367 million.

The group has indicated that it plans to influence local organizations by providing funding, obtaining seats on their boards of directors, offering strategic advice, and convening groups from different cities, according to people familiar with their plans.

These local “quarterback” organizations, as they’re sometimes called, are designed to be the nonprofit hub of a city’s portfolio strategy — doling out grants to grow schools seen as successful, seeding groups that influence school board elections, creating and advocating for new policies like unified enrollment systems.

Its approach is sure to face fierce pushback — and already has in many cities.

Skeptics of charter schools will surely oppose this effort to expand charters and other schools not governed by a school board; they’ll also likely see it as an attempt to weaken teachers unions. Indeed, some advocates for the model say that a key goal is to limit the power of teachers groups by growing schools where teachers aren’t unionized.

Across the country, charter school expansion has drawn pushback as districts lose students and money, in some cases pushing schools to close. Nationally, polls indicate that support for charters has fallen, particularly among Democrats.

On the other side, free-market advocates see the portfolio model as actually limiting school choice, putting too much power in the hands of the “portfolio manager” and shutting down schools based on their test scores, rather than parent demand. In 2015, before she was Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos successfully led the opposition to an effort to create what amounted to a portfolio model in Detroit on those grounds.

Another major risk for the group is operating from a national perch with national funding.

This has tripped up advocates of the portfolio model before. In 2013, for instance, Gray of Education Cities released a plan to have Kansas City adopt the portfolio model if it were taken over by the state. The idea set off a firestorm and was never implemented, not least of all because it was being pushed by a national group with few ties to the city.

Advocates for the approach argue that it will help students in cities that have long struggled with academic performance, though the evidence of its effectiveness is limited and mixed.

Their argument has gotten both good news and bad news in recent weeks. While a new study showed substantial increases in high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion rates in the wake of school reforms in New Orleans, another found that the Tennessee turnaround district that Barbic led produced no gains in test scores even after five years.

“We’ll also work with university researchers to study these local efforts,” the blog post said. “If cities show progress, we hope other cities will follow. If they don’t, we hope other promising innovations are able to scale, so that all students can have access to amazing public schools.”

Education Cities itself is shifting focus, according to a message on its website Tuesday morning, as Gray and some staff members move to The City Fund. Education Cities will be supporting two new organizations, one aimed at advising school board members and the other aimed at helping education groups partner with communities.

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.

Want more from Chalkbeat today? Sign up for our new national newsletter here.