Independence for individual schools and a sense of urgency about reform are key elements for school districts that are moving toward the “portfolio” model of school management, according to speakers at a Denver conference this week.

“A major part of school reform is creating new schools,” said Amy Slothower of Get Smart Schools. “It’s not possible to start new schools if they don’t have a high degree of autonomy.”

Slothower was one of 20 speakers and responders who participated in a Portfolio Management Conference Tuesday sponsored by the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado-Denver and three other organizations.

Portfolio management is educationese for the idea that school boards and districts should move away from traditional forms of top-down management toward being managers and overseers of portfolios including different kinds of schools – traditional, charter, innovation, contract and the like.

Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said, “The core idea of a portfolio district is that is provides the best schools it can by any means it can. … The district is indifferent about who runs schools. … A portfolio district sees itself as primarily responsible to kids and parents [and] not particularly responsible at all to vendors, to unions, to outside groups.”

Hill mentioned New York City and New Orleans as leading examples of the concept, adding, “other systems are moving in this direction. It’s kind a viral movement.”

It’s important, Hill said, for such districts to “make the center as lean as possible” and allocate more funds, and the responsibility for them, to individual schools.

On a small scale, the Denver district has a portfolio of different kinds of schools. Marc Waxman, director of DPS’ Office of School Reform and Innovation, gave a presentation on how the district approaches the approval and oversight of a variety of schools.

David Greenberg of the Denver School of Science and Technology
David Greenberg of the Denver School of Science and Technology

David Greenberg, president of the board of the Denver School of Science and Technology, argued that charters and other non-traditional schools help rather than harm districts.

“We hope we are going to enhance the entire performance of the district,” he said, asserting that by offering a wider selection of schools the district hopefully can attract back families that send their children to private or out-of-district schools.  “The net net will be a huge benefit for the district overall.”

He termed the charter vs. neighborhood schools debate, a theme in this fall’s DPS board races, “an insane conversation, and it’s destructive.”

“We’ve always seen ourselves as part of DPS.”

In addition to the School of Public Affairs, the event was organized by the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations and the Independence Institute.

Paul Hill 2006 report on portfolio districts

Disclosure: The Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations are among the sponsors of EdNews.