Portfolios and Politics: Considerations in the Transition from Twelve Detroit Public School Systems to One

November 11, 2014

By Rachel White

While student achievement in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has not changed much in recent years (for example, see Exhibit 1), who is accountable for the achievement of Detroit’s students has changed significantly. In the past decade, DPS has been in the hands of a local school board, the mayor, and, most recently, the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA). Seemingly none of these governing bodies have been able to find the magic solution to improving student performance. Daniel Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, however, claims to have a potential solution: converting Detroit into a “portfolio” district. While Varner’s solution may spark innovation, politics will inevitably enter into the process and may thwart any effort to turn around the bureaucratic education system that is currently struggling to provide a high-quality education to Detroit’s students.

Data Source: Michigan Department of Education (MDE) Note: Dip in 2011 coincides with implementation of new career- and college-ready cut scores for MEAP.

Data Source: Michigan Department of Education (MDE)
Note: Dip in 2011 coincides with implementation of new career- and college-ready cut scores for MEAP.

Detroit’s Twelve School Systems

According to Varner, who sat on a panel at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy titled “The Future of Education in Detroit,” Detroit has not one, but twelve public school systems: DPS, the EAA, and ten charter authorizers. Likening each system to a driver in a chaotic parking lot with no rules or regulations, Varner contended that each system has its own way of deciding where and when to open or close a school, who should manage a school, and what kinds of family support schools should provide. In place of this, Varner argues for a single school system with coordinated, efficient management of school based on quality and neighborhood need.

Just how would such a system be developed in the current context of numerous different school management types operating in Detroit? According to Varner, the answer is simple: portfolio management.

Detroit as a Portfolio District: A Potential Solution

In a portfolio district, a portfolio manager controls school openings, closings, and operator assignments. This new governing body would ensure school choice is equitable, parents are informed of school quality through a scorecard system, and ensure that a common enrollment and transportation system are in place. Varner proposes that for Detroit’s public school system, a single portfolio manager–perhaps the mayor–is necessary to create a system that is responsive to students and families and accountable to Detroiters.

A single district administrator or agency in charge of opening, closing, and intervening in schools; structured enrollment process; coordinated system of transportation for all students–that sounds a lot like a traditional public school district.

This is precisely the question Dr. Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, asked of the panelists: How is a portfolio district any different than a traditional urban school district?

Innovation and Political Bargaining

According to Varner, the main difference between a portfolio and traditional public school district is the ability and willingness to innovate. Varner contends that in a traditional public school district, there are fewer actors and these actors are not all that interested in trying different approaches to teaching and learning. Conversely, a portfolio district would spur innovation by incorporating numerous actors into the provision of education.

However, Drs. Jeff Henig, Katrina Bulkley and Henry Levin caution against an unbridled acceptance of this notion of increased innovation under a portfolio model. These scholars point to the growing political strength of new education providers who may find it easier to use their insider knowledge and access to a single portfolio manager to safeguard their position in the education system rather than relying on innovation, quality, and consumer responsiveness.

Some urban school districts, such as those in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have implemented the portfolio management model. Have these cities benefited from the adoption of a portfolio strategy? More specifically, who has benefited and are these benefits sustainable over time? Additionally, has there been any evidence of increased innovation or political bargaining in these portfolio managed districts? Future Green & Write Governance and Finance blog posts will continue to examine this topic, specifically highlighting what research has shown and questions that have yet to be answered.


Rachel White – whitera3@msu.edu