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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the portfolio push

40 cities in 10 years: Leaked presentation offers more details on new group’s goals to spread charter (and charter-like) schools

Students enter the building on the first day of school at Denver's McGlone Academy on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The new organization aiming to spread a mix of charter schools, school autonomy, and unified enrollment across the country wants to reach 5 percent of low-income students in the U.S. within five years, according to a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

The City Fund, whose formation was announced late last month, has already amassed over $200 million and a well-connected staff, making it poised to influence education policy in cities across the country.

The full presentation, used a few months ago to pitch potential funders, offers the most detailed available blueprint of the group’s goals and strategies, which include expanding charter schools or charter-like alternatives. Known as the “portfolio model,” it’s a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools. The academic success of the approach remains hotly debated.

“Our goal is to make the model normal,” the presentation says. “After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”

Neerav Kingsland, the managing partner of The City Fund, declined to comment on most details in the document or offer additional information about the group’s funders, but said “nothing dramatic” has changed since the presentation was used.

The City Fund’s pitch: Spreading the Denver, D.C., and New Orleans model

The presentation opens by declaring that “very little works in education reform,” citing an analysis of nearly 200 randomized trials in education.

The group contrasts that to more recent results in Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, three cities that “have broken through with dramatic and sustained gains for all children,” it says. The presentation also cites Indianapolis, Camden, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and Newark as already adopting strategies it prefers. Texas, too, is promoting those ideas through its state education department.

“Given this momentum, we believe that in the next five years we can scale the model to reach ~2% of all United States students and ~5% of low-income students,” it reads.

The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”

The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.

One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”

The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.

Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.

From 2022 on, the group hopes to influence “every major city in America,” growing by a couple of cities each year, the presentation says. (“If I had to rewrite that slide I would say, ‘if evidence and demand follows,’” Kingsland said in an interview. “We really aren’t going to expand if the evidence isn’t there.”)

In seven to 10 years, the group hopes to get to 30 to 40 cities.

How will The City Fund make that happen?

Deploying its leaders to speak and blog, convening sympathetic policymakers and advocates, and partnering with groups, including low-income parent organizers, are some of the strategies the presentation lists.

Money will also be a key source of influence.

City Fund says initial investments will be around  $15 to 25 million for the first three years in each one of a carefully selected group of cities poised to fully adopt the model. Most of that money will flow to local groups, where City Fund leaders will sit on the boards of directors. After seven to 10 years, The City Fund plans to exit a city, allowing the group to spread to new ones and “enabling national scaling.”

The group will have substantial resources to draw from. As Chalkbeat previously reported, the presentation says the group has raised over $200 million and that its first investors are Laura and John Arnold and Reed Hastings.

What we still don’t know: where it will go, who else is funding it, and whether it will work

The presentation leaves some crucial questions unanswered.

For instance, who else is funding the effort besides the Arnolds and Hastings? Kingsland wouldn’t say, but The City Fund recently netted a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) A spokesperson for the foundation said the grant was for four years and intended to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in” the district.

A spokesperson for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said that it also would be funding The City Fund, though declined to say how much money had been awarded, saying final details were still being worked out.

Spokespeople for the Walton Family Foundation and Bezos Family Foundation both said their groups have not supported The City Fund.

Another question: What cities does the group plan to spend its money on? The presentation doesn’t say, though some other signs have emerged.

The Gates Foundation grant is specifically targeted for Oakland, which recently adopted a plan approximating the portfolio model. City Fund staff members already sit on the boards of local organizations with similar agendas in Baton Rouge, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washington D.C, though it’s not clear if that means those will be target cities.

The Arnold Foundation, whose education philanthropy is now routed through The City Fund, has previously invested in portfolio efforts in Atlanta, Camden, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

As expected for a group raising money, the presentation paints an optimistic picture of the success of its strategy, pointing to research showing substantial academic gains in New Orleans after that district’s structural overhaul post-Hurricane Katrina. The presentation doesn’t include the fact that those gains also came with a sustained infusion of both public and philanthropic dollars — nearly $1,500 per pupil compared to similar districts in the state. That’s striking, since the presentation suggests that no new public money is necessary to realize such improvements elsewhere.

The pitch also doesn’t mention studies of the approach that have found more tepid results, like a recent one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district previously led by one of the City Fund partners, Chris Barbic. (Kingsland has acknowledged those results in a blog post, saying “I thought the ASD charter effort would work. … Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions.”)

And in claiming that little in education reform has been successful, the group doesn’t refer to  research on school integration and increased school funding, which have generally found positive effects.

(Kingsland argued the effects of more school spending are small, pointing to one widely-cited national study, and said he supports school integration but questions “its scalability.”)

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist whose work showing test score gains in New Orleans was cited in the City Fund presentation, said he didn’t believe the additional money was the main driver of those improvements. But he is skeptical the New Orleans approach could be replicated without the extra resources.

“We don’t know how much money mattered, but given how much money seems to matter in other places, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest we can do this on the cheap and get these kinds of results,” he said.

Want to learn more about the portfolio model? We’ve written about the ideas and people behind the approach; the research on the model; and efforts to put it in place in Kansas City and Oakland

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)

Since this story published, Chalkbeat has obtained a presentation by The City Fund, which offers additional details on the group’s approach and goals. Read the latest story here.

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 City Fund has already raised over $200 million; Kingsland’s blog names the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund as the group’s “anchor funders.” 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.

Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that The City Fund had raised over $200 million dollars from the Arnold Foundation and Hastings Fund; however, it is not clear if the entirety of that money has come from those two funders.