The school district—long the fundamental unit overseeing public education for some 50 million American children—is an institution in flux.
Like a landmark building that keeps its facade while undergoing massive renovation, most of the nation’s more-than 13,000 districts hold to a familiar structure even as they evolve in response to economic, demographic, and educational pressures.
The basic contours remain familiar: schools clustered into administrative groups based on geographic boundaries; hiring, curriculum, and infrastructure needs overseen by a central office; an overall entity run by a superintendent and governed by an elected or appointed school board.
But in recent years, the shape of that unit—including in some of the nation’s largest districts—has begun to shift. Budget crises, state and federal demands for academic improvement, and the rise of market-based approaches to running schools are spurring new models of governance and internal administration.
Some of the most radical changes can be seen in big districts with deep and long-standing challenges:
- Post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans, where Louisiana’s Recovery School District and charter school operators run most of the schools.
- New York City and Chicago, both shaken up under mayoral control.
- Memphis, Tenn., where state-run schools vie with charters and regular city schools in a district that recently merged with its suburban neighbor. (“Memphis Schools on the Hot Seat Amid Rival Management Strategies,” this issue.)
The changes are not limited to the biggest cities. York, Pa., officials considered, but rejected, a New Orleans-style approach to makeover. Fulton County is Georgia’s largest “charter district,” which allows it the flexibility to drop some state regulatory requirements in return for creating strict accountability standards. The Paradise Valley district in Arizona—the most affluent community in the metropolitan Phoenix area—converted some of its elementary schools to charters to take advantage of a state law that gives more per-pupil funding to charter schools.
“There has been a diversification of public education, particularly in cities, with the rise of educational management and charter organizations and the like,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “Regular districts feel enormous pressure to improve—maybe more pressure than any institution, public or private, in the nation.”
And administrators in long-stable districts, whether they be in suburban, small-town, or rural areas, are not immune from anxieties from developments such as the push for common academic standards, teacher evaluations and school accountability tied to test scores, and state and federal budget cuts.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I can’t recall a time in my career when there were more changes happening at the same time. It’s a busy time, and it’s hard work,” said David A. Cox, the superintendent of the Allegany County school district in Cumberland, Md.
Riding the Current
People have been asking questions about district governance for quite some time, “but it’s no longer an academic debate,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization under the University of Washington.
Some patterns are emerging, in her view.
“The first is one governing entity—a district creating a portfolio [of schools], like in Denver,” where the district might oversee charter schools, regular schools, or other public school options, she said. “The second is a place with two main [governing] entities, like Indianapolis or [the District of Columbia], where the mayor or, in D.C., the charter board, is chartering schools and [the] district’s getting smaller. It’s straight-up competition.
“And then there are places with multiple chartering authorities and governing agencies, like Milwaukee, or Cleveland, or Detroit,” which Ms. Lake describes as the “crazy quilt” model of governance.
Cities in a few states have even crazier quilts.
In addition to empowering multiple charter authorizers, Michigan, Louisiana, and Tennessee all operate state-run districts with responsibility for low-performing schools, an authority now given to the state of Virginia, too.
In Detroit, the public school district is governed by a state-appointed emergency manager, while the separate state-run Education Achievement Authority runs a small group of schools, and more than 40 percent of students attend charter schools. The Detroit school board plays only an advisory role.
The responsibility for coordinating the various publicly funded schools and the long-term financial implications are anything but clear.
“That’s the challenge of governance in the future,” Ms. Lake said. Issues include “who’s responsible for making those kind of oversight decisions—and making sure the system is rational—for parents who want to enroll their kid, but have to apply for 20 different schools to find something; for special education; even just for teachers who want to find jobs.” The sheer variety of models can pose a leadership challenge.
“There’s a variability and complexity about how districts, especially reform districts, are being organized. It’s no longer standardized,” said Andrés A. Alonso, who served as CEO of Baltimore’s 85,000-student public school system for six years before leaving last year. “Running such a complicated system takes an enormous understanding of the local context.”
There is a fresh array of issues in cases where the district itself is being replaced by state control or by another model.
Takeovers are hardly a new phenomenon: New Jersey, for example, has been running the Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson public school systems for almost 20 years, and just last year took over the beleaguered Camden district as well.
Twelve years ago, severe budget woes and dismal academic performance prompted the state of Pennsylvania to take control of the Philadelphia school system, which enrolled 200,000 students at the time. That takeover brought sweeping changes to the district that included handing over the operations of more than 40 low-performing schools to private nonprofits and for-profit entities.
What’s more, in an era of high-stakes accountability for low-performing schools, a small but growing number of states have carved out districts of their own to oversee the schools in most need of improvement. Perhaps the most prominent example is Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which includes, but is not limited to, New Orleans’ troubled system.
“When the district goes away, how can you build a system that takes care of all of the pieces that are important—expulsion, enrollment, facilities management—the invisible architecture of a school system?” asked Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington nonprofit consulting firm, and a former deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey.
In New Orleans, the state-run school district eventually established a consistent expulsion policy, but only after it noticed that schools were disciplining students differently and that some students were dropping out as a result.
Changing From Within
Concerns have been raised about the more-dramatic shifts in governance.
Charter schools and state-run districts are often not directly accountable to elected boards. Similarly, state takeovers often remove schools from the authority of an elected board.
Many of those changes have taken place in cities with large numbers of public school students from traditionally disenfranchised communities.
“We shouldn’t treat school districts as sacred,” said Kevin G. Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has criticized what he sees as market-based school choice policies. “But we shouldn’t discard the benefit of [the] district as a vehicle for local democratic voice. That’s how people in a community jointly express their wishes for their local school system, and, of course, local school systems are the heart of many communities.”
With state takeovers and the growth of charter-management organizations without local boards, “decisions about local schools are now being made in a nondemocratic way by people far from the community, who are responding to market incentives that may not be well-aligned with the interests of the most vulnerable children in the community,” Mr. Welner said.
Even in stable districts, where the traditional structure remains intact, momentum continues toward reducing the role of the central office—shifting responsibility toward allowing principals, rather than the central office, to hire teachers, for instance.
Changes are being seen in the “traditional service delivery, which is top-down, dominated by the appointed superintendent,” said Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University, in Providence, R.I.
In that city, for example, the teachers’ union and school district created a 501(c)3 organization—called United Providence!—that now is responsible for several previously low-performing schools.
Many urban districts have responded to the school-level autonomy in charter schools by giving their own schools similar autonomy.
“If you look at the ingredients of autonomy—you don’t have to use the word ‘charter’ to make that happen,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, a former CEO of the 400,000-student Chicago district, who now works at the College Board’s Washington office. “It could be done in other structures.”
In the Memphis area, for instance, the combined Shelby County-Memphis district has given hiring and budget autonomy to schools in a 13-school “innovation zone” aimed at improving low-performing schools.
In Baltimore, “we took a leap to give schools enormous autonomy in decisionmaking and created fair student funding,” said Mr. Alonso, the former CEO. “There was an enormous shift in mind-set about holding on to kids [in the face of a growing charter sector], and we saw an early turnaround of the decline in enrollment.”
And in the 141,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, a number of local philanthropies partnered to support a corridor of schools in West Charlotte on a project in which each of the schools has been granted more autonomy.
Accountability and Efficiency
Reducing the size of a central office or shifting the way a district does business is not an easy lift.
In Indianapolis, where the district has considered various responses to state intervention and a growing charter sector, “when you really have to make those difficult decisions about changing structure, people may be losing jobs,” said Diane Arnold, the chairwoman of the school board. Indianapolis, for example, endured budget cuts that led to the loss of administrator and teacher jobs. “It’s easy to talk the talk—much easier.”
Moreover, districts are struggling to find ways to cope with the head-on challenge of a burgeoning charter school sector, which can siphon off both students and their per-pupil dollars in ways that have profound effects on districts’ coffers and their educational programs. (“Charters Add Competitive Twist to District-Governance Puzzle,” this issue.)
To try to combat such concerns in Denver, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said that “with new charters, we have been clear: We’re all public schools, we all play by the same rules.” More of the district’s charter schools have neighborhood boundaries, which helps reduce accusations that they “cream” students who are somehow easier to educate from the regular public school system.
In Detroit, where the regular school district’s enrollment of 50,000 is less than one-third of where it was 15 years ago and where more than two-fifths of students attend charter schools, “we’ve literally created marketing plans for each school,” said Steven Wasko, the district’s assistant superintendent for community relations.
Mr. Wasko, said, for instance, that while the district has an operational relationship with the state-run Education Achievement Authority, “we are having to view it as competition.” The district hired a demographer to predict enrollment trends.
While some of these changes have been occurring on the ground, the overall sense is that there has not been a coordinated conversation at the state or national level about how to cope with them.
Mark A. Elgart, the president of Advance Education, a Georgia-based organization that accredits schools, said that the national conversation has not caught up with reality in many districts.
“We hear principals saying external activities like virtual classes are affecting planning, programming, and policies,” he said. “We haven’t had the level of conversations nationally and otherwise about how to ensure equity as we have a deepening of the trends toward personalization and market-driven reform.”
Newark Public Schools
- Enrollment: 46,000
- Character: Urban
- Demographics: 58 percent African-American; 34 percent Hispanic; 7 percent white; 1 percent Asian; and 1 percent other. About 87 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals; 7.7 percent are English-language learners; and 13.4 percent qualify for special education.
- Governance: State-appointed superintendent. The elected school advisory board serves as an oversight committee.
- Schools: 70
- Charters: 22
Source: Newark Public Schools
A state-controlled district since 1995, the Newark, N.J., school system has been unable to unite the community behind its leadership and reform attempts. The debate over the district’s leadership continues to overshadow school improvement efforts and other changes, which include the transformation of some K-8 schools and performance-based pay for teachers partially financed by a $100 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
As one of 31 poor urban New Jersey districts identified in the 1981 state education funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, Newark receives additional state dollars to serve its high-need students. Mr. Zuckerberg’s 2010 donation, and the funds raised from foundations and donors to match his pledge, are being used for a variety of initiatives, including teacher innovation grants and the creation of new school models. Almost $80 million has been distributed to the community and Newark schools so far.
The battle over governance of Newark schools continues to pit what political observers call “new school reformers” against the city’s “old-guard community activists.” While state leaders generally agree that the school system has made progress in recent years, they aren’t willing to return control to its elected school board. Despite the Newark School Advisory Board’s “no confidence” vote last April against Cami Anderson, the district’s state-appointed superintendent, Gov. Chris Christie renewed her contract. Although Mr. Christie, a Republican, was re-elected in November, the race to be the city’s next mayor will likely heat up the school leadership power struggle.
—Karla Scoon Reid
Denver Public Schools
- Enrollment: 84,000
- Character: Urban
- Demographics: 58 percent Hispanic; 20 percent white; 15 percent African-American; 3 percent Asian; 1 percent American Indian; 3 percent other. About 72 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals; 35 percent are English-language learners; and 10 percent qualify for special education.
- Governance: Elected school board, appointed superintendent
- Schools: 143
- Charters: 42
Source: Denver Public Schools
As one of America’s fastest-growing urban district, Denver hopes to continue managing its enrollment boom by emphasizing preschool, strengthening its middle school reform efforts, and embracing school choice options. Officials in the Colorado district, which has increased its enrollment by 20 percent since 2007 and is once again the state’s largest, believe that families flock to better schools with high-quality teachers no matter where they are located.
Like many urban districts nationwide, Denver was hemorrhaging enrollment for years as the city’s economy worsened and students left for higher-performing suburban schools. By the late 1980s, enrollment had bottomed out to about 60,000 students, from roughly 100,000 in the 1960s. It has since experienced an enrollment surge.
The district is forging ahead with school improvement efforts and has a significant charter sector. It is struggling to identify the best strategies to educate its English-language learners. The district also is facing challenges in implementing a discipline model that eschews suspensions and expulsions and has reduced the dropout rate.
— Karla Scoon Reid
Clark County School District
- Enrollment: 315,000
- Character: Urban/suburban
- Demographics: 44 percent Hispanic; 29 percent white; 12 percent African-American; 7 percent Asian; 1.5 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 6 percent multiracial. About 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals; 20 percent are English-language learners; and 11 percent qualify for special education.
- Governance: Elected school board appoints the superintendent.
- Schools: 357
- Charters: 20 (seven authorized by the district, 13 by the state
Source: Clark County School District
The Clark County, Nev., school system’s primary governance challenge is how to manage the explosive growth—189,000 additional students in the past 20 years, making it the nation’s fifth-largest school system. The district has constructed 100 new elementary schools since 1998. But with 4,000 more students last fall, it was 15 percent over seat capacity at the elementary level. And while student numbers are still on the rise, the recent economic recession has forced Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, to stretch its budget to meet education and facility priorities.
Those tensions are expected to continue. Voters rejected a bond initiative in 2012 that would have generated $669 million to build new schools and renovate others, but district leaders may go back to the polls in 2014 or 2016. Meanwhile, the district is using portable classroom buildings (about 30,000 elementary school seats), as it re-evaluates its budget to ensure that funding is allocated to efforts that improve student achievement.
— Karla Scoon Reid
Partnership for Los Angeles Schools
- Enrollment: 15,100
- Character: Urban
- Demographics: 89 percent Latino; 10 percent African-American; 1 percent other; 95 percent eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
- Governance: Nonprofit board appointed by the Los Angeles mayor, but many Los Angeles Unified School District policies and procedures apply to partnership schools.
- Schools: 17
Source: Partnership for Los Angeles Schools
After a pitched political and legal battle over who should control the Los Angeles public schools, district leaders and then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reached detente: The mayor—with the backing of a $50 million investment from local philanthropists—would take on running some of the city’s most troubled schools. Six years later, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the nonprofit launched by Mr. Villaraigosa, now operates 17 schools in the nation’s second-largest school system.
The nonprofit partnership has since honed a four-pronged model for improving its schools: strong principals, teacher skill-building, personalized learning, and family and community partnerships. As its own mini-district, the partnership has outpaced Los Angeles Unified and the state in student growth on state tests, while driving suspension rates down and attendance and graduation rates up. It has some important charterlike freedoms—hiring and firing teachers and principals, for example—but its schools are still subject to the provisions of the teachers’ contract, and it is accountable to the district for meeting performance targets.
At times, the partnership has challenged district policy in ways it argues have benefited all Los Angeles public school students. Most notably, the nonprofit, along with civil rights groups, sued the district when steep budget cuts forced teacher layoffs that were done by seniority. In a settlement, the district agreed to change its “last-hired, first-fired” policy, but after a challenge by the United Teachers Los Angeles, the case is on appeal.
— Lesli A. Maxwell
Cape Girardeau Public School District
- Enrollment: 4,080
- Character: Small city
- Demographics: 8 percent white; 32 percent African-American; 4 percent Hispanic; 62 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
- Governance: Traditionally elected board/superintendent
- Schools: 8
Source: Cape Girardeau Public School District
The Cape Girardeau, Mo., school system for decades was the marquee district in the eponymous city and county in southeast Missouri, 120 miles south of St. Louis. But demographic shifts—including an influx of new immigrant families and rising poverty rates—started to reshape the city about 15 years ago. The district saw its primacy slip as some families opted for private schools and a more affluent neighboring school system. It was, effectively, a small-town district mired in some big-city problems.
Now, in an era of stable leadership on the school board and in the superintendent’s office, district leaders are turning things around with a tight focus on bolstering academics and high school graduation. The four-year cohort rate jumped significantly—to 80 percent last year from 68 percent in 2011—and that improvement was mirrored by the district’s African-American and low-income students.
Superintendent James Welker also has mandated professional learning communities within and across schools. The first Friday of each month, students are dismissed early so that teams of teachers can meet to pore over data, talk about instructional challenges, and brainstorm solutions. And voters approved a $40 million bond that has paid for building upgrades such as a new security system in all eight schools, a new library at Central Junior High School, and a new football stadium and auditorium at Central High School.
Next up: a nascent preschool program, and a technology project that, starting this month, will put a tablet device in the hands of every high school student and will eventually reach down into the elementary grades.
— Lesli A. Maxwell
Karla Scoon Reid, Writer and Lesli A. Maxwell, Managing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2014 edition of Education Week as From Tuneup to Extreme Makeover, School Systems Integrate Changes