Lost in a Sea of Choices, Parents Navigate the Portfolio District

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 4, 2016

Note: It has long been speculated that Detroit Public Schools may transition to a portfolio management school district model. What is a portfolio management district and what does the research say about the effectiveness of this type of model? Check out Green & Write all week for new posts on what we know and what we can learn from the portfolio management model.


Equal Access to Quality Schools?

Many of us remember the anxiety of visiting prospective colleges. As high school students, we toured university campuses, met with instructors, and tried to get a feel for the institutions that would undoubtedly have a substantial impact on our education, career, and identity. The process of choosing a college is tricky and stressful for even the most knowledgeable families. Parents and students use what information they have to make a big decision about the future.

Photo courtesy of W. Carter

Photo courtesy of W. Carter

In recent years, families of much younger students have endured a similar process. In cities like Denver and New Orleans, students and parents must navigate school choice process at the elementary and secondary levels. This is a result of a few urban school systems’ efforts to create portfolio districts, which offer a wide variety of schools from which parents can choose rather than sending students to a default neighborhood school.

A response to the problem of residential segregation in urban areas, portfolio districts give parents some say in which schools their children attend. Michael Stone, co-CEO of New Schools for New Orleans describes the strategy as away of leveling the playing field for poor families: “I think we’re starting to see that ZIP code doesn’t equal destiny. Prior to the storm [and the post-Katrina implementation of the school choice policy], the majority of parents in New Orleans had their kids assigned to a failing school. And now that’s not true.” However, while the idea seems ambitious, the reality of the choice process can be extremely disconcerting for parents.

A Daunting Search Process

In New Orleans, parents apply through an open admissions lottery. They request their top choices, and an algorithm assigns them to schools based on the number of openings in the buildings requested. The OneApp application process is often touted as an efficient and fair way of assigning students to their requested schools. However, the process doesn’t always go as smoothly as planned.

In 2014, the district scheduled one day in July for last-minute enrollment, and anticipated that roughly 300 families would need the extra time and support. Instead, administration was bombarded with nearly 7,000 parents who had either missed the deadline or were unhappy with their children’s placement. It took many parents several six-hour days of waiting and negotiating to settle into their assigned schools.

There is a reason parents are so vehement about getting the school they chose. The search process is often grueling. is a Denver resident who is applying on behalf of her niece. “Having so much choice is overwhelming. It’s confusing to me,” Johnson said. In Detroit, Marc Grassi tried to systematize the elaborate search process: “We actually have a Google Doc spreadsheet of pros and cons of some of the schools.” The . The spreadsheet is a checklist of some of the factors that are essential to consider, “like distance, and education, testing, if the school is religious, the diversity, community.” visiting and talking with officials at each school you are considering as well as devoting several hours to filling out the paperwork.

In addition to the visits and time spent weighing one school against other, parents often find it cumbersome to have to submit applications, transcripts, test scores and even recommendation letters. Depending on the district, these additional documents can mean the difference between ending up in one’s first-choice school or another one that just had space.

 Schools Choosing Students  

Because schools are incentivized to constantly increase student achievement, it is in their best interest to enroll students who will make that goal more obtainable. This creates perverse incentives whereby schools begin to choose students.

One Denver teacher describes the choice process as “administrators sitting behind closed doors accepting and rejecting students based on grades, behavior records, attendance data, and standardized test scores.” Schools sometimes “counsel out” students with learning disabilities or identify students with behavior challenges as unsuitable for seats in highly sought-after schools.

The ability of competitive schools to choose their students results in the segregation of students based on race and income level. With 18,500 seats open in New Orleans schools rated A and B by the state, and 45,000 students attempting to gain admission to them, these schools can choose the highest performing, best behaved students. This group of students, it just so happens, rarely includes poor students of color. Thus, rather than solving the problem of segregation, portfolio districts can exacerbate it.

Contact Kacy: kmartin@msu.edu

The following two tabs change content below.
Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.