The Endangered School District: The Promise and Challenge of Redistributing Control of Public Education
Abstract: One constant in American public education reform has been the existence
of a single local entity – the school district – with operational
responsibility. In some places, that is changing. Fueled by
undercurrents in education reform such as the embrace of broader school
choice and an increase in state involvement in local education, as well
as federal political alignment supporting these undercurrents, some
communities are embracing a radical structural reform that redistributes
operational control across a series – or portfolio – of autonomous
In such communities – typically large, urban school
systems serving a student population that is largely poor and made up of
minority students – the term “district” no longer applies. The broad,
district-wide authority of a school board and superintendent is being
dispersed to a variety of operators, including state education
departments, private (i.e., charter school) operators, and the
preexisting district itself. Each operator enjoys substantial or even
total independence from other operators, generating an autonomy that has
not existed within the traditional district structure.
Endangered School District describes the causes and ramifications of
such a substantial departure from the traditional district model and
offers case studies from two communities – New Orleans, LA, and
Memphis/Shelby County, TN – at the epicenter of urban education reform.
Building on scholarship evaluating the theory of expanded school choice
and operational autonomy, these case studies help demonstrate the
practical challenges of applying these theories beyond isolated schools
to entire educational communities.
There is great disagreement
about the wisdom of transitioning toward a portfolio model for public
education. The Endangered School District simply accepts the
development as the emerging trend that it is and offers insight from two
communities for making the most of such a radical structural change.
the article describes the undercurrents that are enabling the portfolio
strategy and the ramifications – administrative, legal and
philosophical – of moving away from the traditional district model.
After introducing the case studies, the article next examines the
respective new models in depth in order to evaluate whether either can
deliver as a strategy to increase educational opportunities for
students. Specifically, the article identifies the dangers that these
structural reforms may simply reorganize the stratified educational
systems they seek to eliminate or that they may not be financially,
legally, or politically sustainable over time and on such a large scale.
Rather than merely identifying these challenges, the article then goes
on to identify legal structures – such as state laws or bilateral
agreements between public school authorizers and public school operators
or even among operators themselves – that can help minimize these
This article appeared in the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal. The full article is available here.