School Districts Go Lean: Denver Edition

Commentary

School Districts Go Lean: Denver Edition

Large school districts across the country are trying to reduce their bureaucratic footprint on schools. Over 45 cities are working to implement portfolio management, a strategy in which many central-office functions are made obsolete. In this model a district’s primary role is to approve operators, evaluate performance, and provide fee-based support while applying rigorous accountability standards. In addition to traditional schools, a district’s portfolio might also include charter and private schools.

At the heart of portfolio management is the belief that school-level autonomy fuels innovation, ultimately allowing school leaders to more effectively meet the needs of their students. Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at the forefront of this movement to decentralize, which it details in its five-year strategic roadmap The Denver Plan 2020.

Driven by its core belief including that “Every family deserves choice and access to high quality schools in their neighborhood”, DPS is striving to have 80% of its students attending a high-performing school by 2020. To achieve this and other goals DPS has identified five strategic priorities to focus on including flexibility. Beginning next school year principals will be afforded greater autonomy over numerous areas including curricular, staffing, and programmatic decisions. Additionally, many of the district’s current support functions will no longer be standardized across schools. Instead, principals will have greater control over their budgets and district services will be offered to schools à la carte.

Naturally, the transition to a more decentralized system will present DPS with numerous challenges. After all, organizational norms, systems, and mindsets must shift drastically. For leaders with the fortitude to navigate these drastic changes the benefits far outweigh the costs, which will result in more responsive education for students.

At the macro-level portfolio management offers distinct advantages over the traditional model of district oversight. Most notably, it recognizes that there are myriad ways in which a school can achieve successful outcomes. Whereas a traditional district tends to proscribe a homogenous method of operating by controlling inputs (e.g. mandating curriculum, staffing ratios, etc.) portfolio districts are essentially neutral as to how schools operate as long as they meet the established criteria for success. This system promotes diversity in supply (i.e. different approaches to serving students), which when paired with a strong school choice policy, provides parents with substantial options.

An additional advantage of portfolio management is that it diminishes the negative impact of bureaucracy. DPS, for example, is cutting central office staff by about 110 positions and overhauling how support is provided to schools. On the surface, the primary benefit is obvious: more money is available to be spent at the school-level and support is delivered more efficiently. However, this effort to decentralize also has unseen benefits. Eliminating bureaucratic positions has a commensurate reduction in red tape, questionable decrees, and general meddling in school affairs. As Ludwig von Mises stated, “Nobody can be at the same time a correct bureaucrat and an innovator.” Bureaucrats serve to maintain the status quo, which for most large urban districts is quite undesirable. Eliminating bureaucracy can help give educators more of their two most valuable assets to effectively serve students: time and freedom.

To be certain, decentralization has a significant impact on school leaders. Critics argue that principals have neither the time nor skill to do things such as budget, hire, and make curricular decisions-being a principal is already challenging enough without additional duties. What they fail to consider, however, is that such responsibilities are among the most critical to ensuring that student needs are fulfilled. Principals won’t simply have tasks added to their “To Do” lists; rather, the very nature of their roles will be transformed so that their time is spent on projects that have greater impact on students. Instead of spending time, say, complying with district office requests they’ll be engaged in more productive endeavors such as determining how scarce resources should be allocated amongst programs.

It might be true that many principals do not currently have the skills needed to effectively perform tasks such as budgeting. However, there’s no reason an intelligent and resourceful leader can’t acquire them. In fact, DPS provides schools with dedicated financial partners who work with principals one-on-one throughout the year. They also offer training opportunities for leaders who want to further develop their skill-set. This is an example of effective central office support in which assistance is provided, as needed, and decisions rights are retained by those closest to students.

New Orleans’ Recovery School District is an example of how portfolio management can produce drastic results. Since its inception in 2005 RSD has closed achievement gaps and better prepared students for college. Sixty-five percent of its African American males now graduate on time compared to 59 percent for Louisiana. RSD’s rate of college-bound graduates has increased markedly from a mere 19 percent for the class of 2005 to over 51 percent for the class of 2014, indicating a significant increase in rigor and counseling.

Writing about economic planning, Henry Hazlitt once said “The real question being raised is not: plan or no plan? but whose plan?” The same can be said of education. Whose plan do we want to follow for a child, the bureaucrats who have never met him or the educators who interact with him daily?

Aaron Garth Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.