April 1, 2015

The Urban School System of the Future

By Bellwether

Share this article



What is the Urban School System of the Future?

For half a century and in every big city from coast to coast, the urban district has failed to produce the results America’s low-income students deserve.

Traditional fixes including increased funding, improved professional development, new teacher and leader pipelines, transparent accountability systems, and much more have fallen miles short of what inner-city neighborhoods and their kids need.

The Urban School System of the Future (TUSSF) is a new approach to delivering, organizing, governing, and continuously improving urban K-12 education. School performance, parental preferences, and community needs take precedence. They work together to expand and diversify the educational options available to families and in the process create dynamic, responsive, high-performing, and self-improving urban systems of schools. 

A near-certain consequence of this new approach to managing a city’s portfolio of schools is the replacement of the urban district as the dominant delivery system for K-12 education.


Published in 2012, The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Lessons and Principles of Chartering owes much to the systems-change scholarship of Paul Hill and Ted Kolderie, school-choice advocates like Howard Fuller, and the reform efforts of New Orleans, New York City, Washington, D.C. and other leading cities. The book argues that cities should continuously grow the number of accessible high-quality schools by “portfolio managing” across all three sectors. Through new policies and civil-society activities, cities would identify and grow the most successful programs, replace persistently failing schools, and enable new schools to start with an eye toward maintaining a diversity of options and meeting community needs.

As recently as five years ago, very few people believed—and fewer still were willing to say publicly—that the urban district was irreparably broken, wholly unable to operate the great schools city kids need. Even among those conceptually amenable to the idea of systemic change there were serious doubts that the urban district could be replaced. It had existed virtually unchanged, and certainly unchallenged, for a century.

But in recent years, the idea of replacing the failed urban district with a new system of schools has made remarkable inroads. The pace of change is only accelerating.

Current Education Sector Trends toward TUSSF

In more and more cities, the ideas underpinning TUSSF are being brought to life:

  • Organizations in numerous cities, including Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, are pursing “high-quality seat” initiatives, seeking to grow great schools and foster supportive civil-society activity.
  • Major policy interventions, including Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, non-district authorizers, and district takeovers, are redefining the delivery, organization, and governance of urban public schooling and providing space for new systems of schools to emerge.
  • Since 2011, the number of states with private-school choice programs increased from 15 to 25.1 The number of cities with at least 30 percent charter market share has increased from 7 to 12 in just three years.2
  • In New Orleans, nearly all public-school students are now served by the charter sector. State and national test scores, graduation rates, and other indicators of quality show substantial improvements in student learning since the storms of 2005.3 A public scholarship program enables New Orleans students to choose private schools that are included in the state’s accountability system.4
  • Thanks to extraordinarily effective school operators and supportive nonprofits and public policies, charter students in Boston and Newark are learning a year more per year compared to their district peers. In Detroit, more than half of public-school students attend charters, with research showing significant learning advantages in the charter sector.5
  • In Washington, DC, nearly half of public-school students attend charters.6 The charter sector is producing several additional months of learning per year while serving higher percentages of minority and low-income students than (and comparable percentages of special-education and ELL students to) the district.7 A federally funded scholarship programs enables over 1,000 students to choose private schools.8
  • Entrepreneurial, reform-oriented nonprofits are proliferating in America’s cities. School incubators and accelerators, human-capital organizations, advocacy groups, and other types of are support organizations are fueling the development of the new urban system of schools.9 10 11
  • Finally, and perhaps the best and most recent illustration of the changing tides, is the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s decision to suspend the Broad Prize due to urban districts’ inability to adequately improve.12

What Does the Urban School System of the Future Look Like?

Though TUSSF will take different forms in different cities and evolve over time, its contours should remain the same. This includes clear roles for key groups in the city.


The educational choices families make should always be the primary force shaping the supply of schools. In TUSSF, families are able to choose from among a diverse array of high-quality school options. The school a student attends reflects an affirmative choice from among accessible, successful options, not an assignment made by a central authority. Extensive information on school quality and programming and a user-friendly enrollment processes are critical to family empowerment.


All schools participating in this new public system will receive equitable funding and have access to facilities and transportation. All schools, regardless of sector or operator, will be accountable to authorizers via performance contracts. A school’s existence will depend on its ability to meet family and community needs as well as financial, operational, and academic performance standards.

School Operators

In TUSSF, a city’s portfolio of schools will include a wide array of school operators, entities that run one or more schools participating in the public system. Though they share this key characteristic, these organizations, often known as CMOs and EMOs, will continue to take a variety of forms: they will differ in the programs they offer, the grades they serve, how they interact with their schools, how many schools they operate, and much else.

The district central office will settle into this role. In TUSSF, it will be thought of as the DMO (district management organization). Like other operators, the DMO will be able to run its schools as it chooses. It will continue to have discretion over the employment of its central staff and teacher corps, the provision of services to its schools, and so forth. Like all operators, each of the DMO’s schools will be accountable to an authorizer via a performance contract.

Private schools, individually or through the mediation of private school management organizations (PMO), will be able to participate in the public system. In exchange for public accountability (including, authorizer-based oversight), participating private schools will be able to join the common enrollment system, access fair funding, and participate in transportation and facilities programs. Like all public schools, they will need to meet the needs of families and communities as well as public performance standards.


An authorizer is an entity with the power to accept and render judgments on applications for the creation of new public schools, develop contracts with approved school providers, and hold schools to account for their performance. Independent school authorizers will ensure that the system remains high-performing, dynamic, responsive, and self-improving. Evaluation criteria for schools will be transparent and consistent.

The Chancellor

The Chancellor’s office will ensure that new schools are regularly created, that great schools are expanded and replicated, that persistently failing schools are closed, and that families have access to an array of high-quality options. It will also be responsible for the city’s enrollment system, transportation, facilities, and other policies to bring coherence to the system.


1. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “School Choice Program.” Accessed March 7, 2014. https://www.edchoice.org/school-choice/school-choice-in-america/.
2. “A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities,” National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, December 2014, 9th ed., p.2, accessed April 1, 2015, http://www.publiccharters.org/sites/default/files/migrated/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2014_Enrollment_Share_FINAL.pdf.
3. Anya Kamenetz, “The End of Neighborhood Schools,” National Public Radio, September 2, 2014 accessed April 1, 2015, http://apps.npr.org/the-end-of-neighborhood-schools/.
4. Louisiana Department of Education. “Louisiana Scholarship Program.” Accessed April 1, 2015. http://www.louisianabelieves.com/schools/louisiana-scholarship-program.
5. “Urban Charter School Study: Report on 41 Regions,” Center for Research and Education Outcomes, 2015accessed April 1, 2015, http://urbancharters.stanford.edu/download/Urban%20Charter%20School%20Study%20Report%20on%2041%20Regions.pdf#page=23.
6. Michael Alison Chandler, “D.C. public schools enrollments continue to climb,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/10/08/d-c-public-schools-enrollments-continue-to-climb/.
7. David Osborne, “Why Charter Schools Work—Or Don’t,” U.S. News and World Report, March 16, 2015, accessed April 1, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/2015/03/16/why-charter-schools-work-or-don’t.
8. D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. “Home Page.” Accessed April 1, 2015. http://dcscholarships.org/.
9. Education Cities. “Our Members.” Accessed April 1, 2015. https://educationcities.org/our-members/.
10. Students for Education Reform. “Our Story.” Accessed April 1, 2015. https://www.studentsforedreform.org/our-people/.
11. Teach for America. “Our Organization.” Accessed April 1, 2015. https://www.teachforamerica.org/what-we-do.
12. Motoko Rich, “Billionaire Suspends Prize Given to Schools,” The New York Times, February 9, 2015, accessed April 1, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/education/billionaire-suspends-prize-given-to-schools.html.

More from this topic

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.