Portfolio school reform is the theory that underpins much of what is happening across the school districts in America’s biggest cities. It is the idea that a school district should be managed like a business portfolio, shedding the failed investments and resourcing the smart investments. It is a program of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and it is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One of its primary features is the practice of closing schools.
Trymaine Lee, who has been covering school reform in Chicago for MSNBC, reflects in this powerful article on the impact of the rash of school closures in recent years on the children and adolescents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. “After Parrish Brown graduates from Walter Dyett High School this spring, it’s likely he’ll never set foot in that school building again. Not for a 10-year reunion or to catch up with former teachers or to admire the gleaming trophies inside the school’s display case. Because if all goes according to the city’s plan, there soon will be no Walter Dyett High School to return to in Bronzeville, an historic African-American enclave on the city’s south side. ‘They closed my elementary school and now they’re phasing out my high school. One day there’ll be nothing in my community to come back to,’ said Brown, 17.”
Describing Chicago, Lee reports, “Since 2001 the district has shuttered or phased-out about 150 schools, including 49 over this past summer. It was the largest single mass school closing in American history and affected more than 30,000 students who were either displaced or whose schools absorbed the massive spillover.” According to Lee, 88 percent of the students affected by the Chicago closings are African-American, with 94 percent from low-income families. Public school closures in Chicago have clustered on the city’s south and west sides, with far fewer schools closed in the white neighborhoods on the north side.
While Chicago’s public school closures have been described by district officials as part of a cost-cutting measure, the school district has continued to encourage the start-up of new charter schools. According to Lee, “Just last week, CPS proposed the addition of 21 new charter schools.” The theory behind portfolio school reform is that new, often privatized, schools will open to compete with the traditional neighborhood schools. The strategy assumes that a school district will be improved through “creative disruption.”
Jitu Brown disagrees. He is a community organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization that has been organizing parents and students to protest the closure of their public schools. “This is not about school choice, says Jitu Brown. “If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools. When you shut down neighborhood schools you’re not providing choices, it’s displacement by force.”