By Van Schoales
Twenty years ago, the introduction of charter schools changed Denver Public Schools more than any single policy since busing had done. Then, last month the Board said that schools should have to “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” of district supports like curriculum, school-based assessments, and professional development. It’s nothing short of a paradigm shift. Not only does it have the potential to accelerate student achievement by giving schools more flexibility over what they do in the classroom, but it calls into question the fundamental role of a school district.
For decades, thousands of districts across the country have strongly controlled schools from a distance. They’ve dictated programs, instruction, and staffing. They’ve provided the transportation, the buildings, the people who fix the buildings, technology, people who fix the technology when it breaks. There is a department for food services, ROTC, Gifted and Talented, teacher evaluation. All in all, there are close to 100 departments in DPS. This reorganization says to schools: do you really value the supports we are providing? Do you value them enough to pay for them? It is the true test of any public service. If a district function is not of perceived value to a school, then maybe it is not worth sustaining.
A district that pushes most resources and decision-making power to the school level is usually referred to as a portfolio district, a term coined by researchers at the University of Washington. DPS has for years been adopting many of the principles of a portfolio district. Allowing schools to opt-in or out of services takes the portfolio vision a step further. It might change nothing. It could be catastrophic, as it was in Chicago. Or, it could mean more efficiencies, freedoms and resources for schools, as it has in Edmonton, Alberta.
The success of Denver’s efforts will depend on the savvy of Denver’s principals and the willingness of the central office to understand its new role. Principals who opt-out of services will take on roles they previously left to someone else. The department providing a particular support service will also be in a new and prickly position. Suddenly, they will need to compete with outside providers on price and quality. They may need to expand or contract based on demand.
Even though the effects of opt-in will take time to unfold, we think the principle is right. Those closest to kids should be making the overwhelming majority of the decisions about their needs. The district’s role is to ensure that a standard of quality is met, not to meet every need itself. Relinquishing power is something almost no centralized public system ever does – and DPS deserves a lot of credit and applause for putting the needs of principals, teachers and students above the instinct to maintain control.