Texas is encouraging its school districts to drastically change how they manage their campuses – an effort to quickly cut down the number that are low-performing.

It is spending more than $20 million a year in state and federal dollars on districts and outside consultants working to give individual schools more freedom from state and local regulations, with mixed results: Some schools are performing better in state ratings; others are continuing to struggle.

The controversial national approach is especially unpopular with teacher groups, and has led to strikes in cities like Denver and Los Angeles.

In a traditional school district, an elected school board chooses a superintendent, who runs a central office responsible for budgeting, hiring, and curriculum for a set of schools. Under the new approach, leaders at individual campuses have much more power and flexibility to make their own decisions, and are released from some of the constraints of state and local regulations – much like publicly funded, privately managed charter schools are. The elected school board and central office determine which schools open where, but play a much smaller role in managing them.

“The idea is to hold schools accountable but give them more control… so they can influence the policies you’re holding them accountable for,” said Beth Schueler, a University of Virginia professor who has studied similar efforts in Massachusetts.

A system of great schools

Some call this a “portfolio model;” the same way an investor holds a portfolio of stocks, a school district manages a collection of autonomous schools, each offering innovative programs and opportunities that meet parent and student needs. If the schools don’t show returns – by way of higher student test scores and state ratings – the district can bring in nonprofits or charter companies to run them, or just shut them down.

It’s a vision for public education that’s sweeping the country, backed by big-time philanthropists such as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have all heavily invested in encouraging school districts to adopt the approach. Advocates see the work as a middle path between traditional district governance and a state takeover.

Texas is “trying to re-make how school districts approach the work of school improvement,” said Ashley Jochim, who has been studying Texas’ efforts for the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, whose founder first coined the phrase “portfolio model” more than 15 years ago. “There are no other states doing this as explicitly or deliberately as Texas that I’m aware of.”

Texas calls its portfolio approach the “System of Great Schools,” a network of school districts that want help changing how they manage their schools. The network includes 14 school districts serving more than 400,000 kids, including rural ones like Longview and urban ones like San Antonio and Fort Worth. They are each matched with outside consultants who have done similar work in other states.

Other school districts can apply for grant money to redesign their schools even if they don’t join the network.

Their biggest critics are teachers’ unions and associations, who argue that running a school system like a business results in fewer protections for teachers, accelerated closures of under-resourced schools in low-income neighborhoods, and a heightened focus on standardized tests, all to the detriment of students.

They say taking power away from elected school boards disenfranchises low-income black and Hispanic parents, whose children are overrepresented in the state’s lowest-rated schools. They contend the approach effectively privatizes public education and incentivizes new charter schools, which then compete with traditional public schools for money and students.

“Instead of having a great school system, we’ll have a system of great schools,” said Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel at Texas AFT, a state teachers’ union. “We’re going to pick and choose what kind of schools to keep and charter-ize and close the rest of public schools.”

Debate over charter involvement

The El Paso Independent School District, until recently a member of the System of Great Schools, received a $450,000 state grant in 2018 to redesign eight struggling schools and give campus leaders more autonomy over choosing academic programs, recruiting and retaining teachers, and determining their budgets. “This is unlike anything the district has ever undertaken and, if successful and staffing allows, it may be expanded,” administrators wrote in the grant application.

Though the district has exited the state’s network after two years of training, officials say they still plan to move forward with the process and will even seek outside organizations to run some schools. District leaders agreed not to consider applications from charter companies for those partnerships – a win for Ross Moore, president of El Paso’s teachers’ union, who said he fought “tooth and nail” to prevent them.

He said the increased autonomy for school leaders has already been harmful for teachers, who are grappling with larger class sizes and longer hours. “Teacher morale counts,” he said, “and being treated with dignity and respect and given reasonable tasks.”

But “portfolio” advocates say critics are clinging to the status quo at the expense of students.

“The old way is not working either for a whole lot of kids,” said Starlee Coleman, the CEO of the Texas Charter Schools Association. “And so what is the harm in trying a new way when there’s a whole lot of kids that are not being well-served?”

Last month, Coleman and other charter advocates hosted a “speed dating” event in Austin to introduce school administrators from across the state to operators of charter schools, hoping some might hit it off and agree to partner to run a school. Most of the school district representatives invited were part of the System of Great Schools. All of the charter representatives were from other states, and interested in expanding their operations into Texas.

So far, very few school districts in the System of Great Schools are partnering with charters to redesign and run schools. The most high profile — some would argue notorious – example is San Antonio ISD’s 2018 contract with New York-based charter network Democracy Prep to run low-performing Stewart Elementary. In the process, teachers at Stewart were no longer covered by the district contract; the local teachers’ union’s lawsuit to stop it was unsuccessful. In the first year of the partnership, Stewart dropped two letter grades in the state’s accountability ratings, going from a B to a D.

One of the first and most eager districts to join the System of Great Schools, San Antonio ISD has more than a dozen schools in partnerships with charters and other nonprofits, each of which offers a different program: dual language, advanced college prep, single-gender education. Many of the newer partnerships this year are in schools that are already performing well in the state’s ratings, and are a way to draw in new parents or retain existing ones who want varied options for their children.

The long list of consultants the state has pre-approved to help school districts participate in the System of Great Schools is a who’s who of education reform initiatives in other states. Paul Pastorek, an advisor for San Antonio ISD, was the Louisiana education chief after Hurricane Katrina who turned New Orleans into an all-charter school district. Chris Barbic, who advises Fort Worth ISD, led a district that included Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and is part of a new organization pushing the portfolio model across the country.

So far, this work in other states shows mixed results.

“We don’t have a ton of examples of initiatives that really seem to pay off in a big way when it comes to trying to turn around low-performing school systems,” Schueler, the UVA professor, said. “States are kind of grasping for straws in some way.”

Carrot and stick

Texas Education Agency officials say they’re documenting successes and struggles as more school districts join the network or receive related grants to redesign their schools. But they’re encouraging districts to keep evaluating what their schools need and what parents are asking for.

And while they’re offering a carrot with one hand – giving school districts extra money to shake up their school management – the other hand wields a stick. By law, they must punish school districts if they have a single campus that is low-performing for five or more years, a rule that has become increasingly strict. That can include pressuring districts to change their management approach – or risk a state takeover or forced campus closure.

A key part of the state’s vision was set into motion in 2017, when the state Legislature passed a law giving school districts a reprieve from such sanctions – and more money – if they partner with outside organizations or companies to run their low-performing schools.

A Texas Tribune analysis found that the first 12 schools in those partnerships showed mixed results at the end of their first full year, with more than half receiving Fs in the state ratings and most doing worse than they had the previous year.

One example: Empower Schools, a company that received $200,000 in state grants to help Waco ISD set up partnerships with the nonprofit Transformation Waco for five chronically low-performing schools. Four out of five of those schools either stayed stagnant or plummeted in the state ratings, which district officials attributed to challenges with teacher retention.

“There is a point where we have to figure this out,” said Seth Rau, senior manager of policy at Empower Schools. “We obviously want to set them up to be as successful as possible.”

Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning,...