Photo from Andy Smarick.

In a recent book, education analyst Andy Smarick argues that the traditional urban school district is broken beyond repair. He advocates a choice-based system that allows for the creation of new schools, the closure of persistently failing schools, and the expansion and replication of the most successful schools.

In The Urban School System of the Future, Smarick says that despite decades of effort, urban public school districts like DCPS continue to serve the vast majority of their students inadequately. In his view, they will never generate the results disadvantaged kids deserve.

What’s needed, he says, is a “portfolio” approach. Instead of having the school district serve as the sole or even dominant operator of schools on a permanent basis, a city would manage a portfolio of its K-12 schools.

The city would remain neutral as to whether a school operator came from the traditional public, public charter, or private school sector. Its goal would be to increase the number of students in high-performing schools year after year.

Smarick is a partner at the DC-based consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. He agreed to answer some questions about his ideas for GGE.

You advocate closing schools that are failing rather than trying to turn them around, making an analogy to the business world, where failure leads to an exit from the field. But closing a school arguably results in greater disruption than closing a business. And the effects on children could be long-lasting, especially if there’s no better school available for them to go to. Is there any way to mitigate those disruptive effects under your proposed system?

This is one of the toughest issues in urban education reform. There’s a huge difference between smart closure policies and clumsy, insensitive closure policies—and the latter have unfortunately dominated. I support the former because the success rate of “turnarounds,” as evidenced by decades of experience, has been shockingly low.

We just can’t rely on turnarounds if we want to dramatically improve student learning in inner-city public schools. This is why I advocate for an approach that has as its North Star the following goal: We will continuously grow the number of students in high-quality schools.

That leads to a set of strategies far more promising than relying on the schools and systems of yesterday. If we have a well integrated plan of smart closures, new start-ups in the charter sector, and the replication and expansion of proven models, we can grow the number of high-quality seats and facilitate families’ selections of schools that best meet the needs of their kids.

On the specific issue of closures, I think we always need to have two guiding principles when we’ve decided a school is persistently underperforming and needs to be shuttered.

First, make sure those involved in the closure are aware of and sensitive to the history of the school and its place in the community. That school could be named after a civil rights icon, it could have been the first desegregated school in the city, it could have had a long history of academic or athletic success, it could provide other services to the neighborhood, and much more.

Second, never close a school unless you can ensure that displaced students have safer and higher-performing school options available to them.

Some say that high-performing charter schools serving high-poverty populations have succeeded because they skim off the best students and most engaged parents, either through active selection or because those who apply are a self-selected group. Is it possible that even a portfolio approach won’t be enough to succeed with the students who are hardest to educate?

There’s now plenty of research showing that charter enrollment in big cities is overwhelmingly low-income and minority, so this isn’t the issue that charter detractors had hoped it would be. But there are a couple of issues we ought to grapple with.

First, it might be the case that in cities with moderately sized charter sectors families with students who have significant special education needs choose to keep their kids in the district because the district is large and has substantial resources. Most charters, even those operating as part of a CMO, are still quite small by comparison, meaning fewer staff and smaller budgets. And keep in mind that nationally, charters get significantly less funding per student than districts do.

If families are making choices based on their assessments of their children’s best interests, we need to think long and hard before forcing a certain percentage of students with specific characteristics into any type of school—district, charter, or otherwise—in the name of equity.

But as a city’s charter sector becomes dominant—especially if the district becomes a marginal or nonexistent presence—charters, collectively, will have to serve every single student well. With that future in mind, it becomes incumbent upon all of us to make sure we enable charters to deliver.

That will require smart policies and practices related to funding, human capital, parental choice, enrollment systems, and more. In other words, as the charter sector grows from ancillary to dominant sector, its responsibilities grow. And that requires a concomitant shift in the way policymakers, funders, families, and the public treat charters.

Charter schools are more capable of innovation and experimentation, but traditional public school systems have advantages of scale in providing things like special education, legal services, etc.  Under your model, which focuses on the success or failure of individual schools, would there be a way for schools to take advantage of the benefits of scale?

I think those opposing charters and defending the establishment often misunderstand the lessons of scale. The way scale works best is if you take something small and successful and then find ways to grow it. They way it doesn’t work so well is to take something large and unsuccessful and try to make it better. In other words, quality comes first, and then comes size.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the urban school district’s scale have been the reform movement’s chimera—something wished for but illusory. It has led countless individuals and organizations to bet on the district. Those efforts have amounted to astonishingly little; we still don’t have a single high-performing urban district in the entire nation.

My view on scale is twofold. First, scale should result from great schools replicating and expanding. Clusters of 5 or more schools can then realize valuable economies of scale while getting terrific academic results.

Second, there are things that ought to be handled system-wide, like an enrollment system and the allocation of public-school facilities. I doubt the school district could ever do these things well, so I’d prefer they be housed in other entities. But those entities could and should have scale in the sense that they influence the city’s entire portfolio of schools.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.