The Central Office in a Decentralized System

Published in: The School Administrator, v. 67, no. 11, Dec. 2010, p. 30-33

Posted on RAND.org on December 01, 2010

by Heather L. Schwartz

As the charter school movement has come to scale within the United States, it poses new questions about how to govern public education. With a significant rural contingent, charter schools are no longer just an urban phenomenon. Partly in response to the growth in charter schools, Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, coined the term "portfolio district" to describe a school district that authorizes and manages diverse providers of public schooling — district-run or externally led traditional schools, alternative schools, small schools within schools, and cyber or charter schools. In concept, a portfolio district would act like a fund manager overseeing a portfolio of investments. A school district would establish performance expectations and foster differentiation among its schools to serve various segments of its market. Just as a fund manager sells underperforming stocks, a portfolio district will close failing schools, allowing for new ones to take their place. The tremendous growth of nontraditional public schools would suggest that portfolio districts are the wave of the future, but taken to its logical extreme, if a portfolio district were composed solely of externally led schools, what exactly would a school district do beyond authorize and close schools? To best approximate such a scenario, two examples shed light on what activities remain within the purview of the central office when school networks or districts are made up solely of autonomous public schools. Together, they reveal some of the core central-office activities that enable a system of schools to succeed. In this article, the author examines two school districts that are highly decentralized to understand the central-office roles: (1) Edmonton, Canada; and (2) Lake Wales Charter Schools District in central Florida. Interviews with superintendents or directors and a review of publicly available documents allowed the author to gauge the distribution of responsibilities for school operations.

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