June 06, 2013

The Endangered School District

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 entities.

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.

The 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.

First, 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 risks.

This article appeared in the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.  The full article is available here.