The portfolio strategy of school reform embodies the idea of school choice. The provision of a range of privatized charter schools and the elimination of assigned school attendance zones are central to the theory, which was developed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, whose website declares, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.” Robin Lake, the Center’s director, might be called the mother of this theory that envisions the governance of education through the lens of creative disruption—schools managed like a business portfolio, with new schools continually introduced and failures dropped from the portfolio.
I was impressed that when Robin Lake recently visited Detroit, she was quoted in the Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools in Michigan criticizing the management of school choice. I have always hoped that proponents of privatization might take a second look if it were proven that charters and vouchers are not accomplishing what was promised: closing achievement gaps and significantly and measurably improving the education of children who are struggling in public schools. I was encouraged to read in the Free Press that Lake agreed with critics that school choice in Detroit these days is a morass. In Detroit, Lake said charters “have created a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of great new schools are up and running as a result.” She added, however, that “not enough attention has been paid to quality and equity access in Detroit.” She said that today Detroit has a massive oversupply of schools but “a lack of high-quality seats.” She said parents “are having a difficult time navigating their options.” “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.” “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.” Lake’s conclusions, however, at the end of her Free Press interview disappointed me. She reverted to ideology, minimized the problems she had just described, and affirmed choice and creative disruption: “You don’t want to close off the door to innovation by saying everyone has to have a cookie-cutter approach.” “You’ll end up with the same public schools we’re trying to get away from.”
This month the Center on Reinventing Public Education followed up on Lake’s Free Press critique by publishing a scathing report about the problems Lake observed in Detroit. Lake and her colleagues, Michael DeArmond and Ashley Jochim base their conclusions on a survey of 4,000 parents in Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., although the report includes a significant section on the special problems in Detroit. Here are some of the concerns raised by Lake and her colleagues:
Lack of Access: “Many parents—especially those in the most disadvantaged circumstances—face barriers that limit their ability to choose a school for their child, including inadequate information, lack of convenient transportation, and uneven school quality.” The lack of guidance for parents is a problem in traditional public and charter schools today, as many school districts have eliminated assigned attendance zones. In Detroit, the problem is described for parents as severe: “a lack of information, confusing paperwork, and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child… ‘There are no watchdogs in Detroit to make sure parents… get what they need from schools,’ said a charter school leader.’ ‘They’re on their own.'”
Lack of Opportunity: An over-supply of schools exists in Detroit and competition for students is intense: “The biggest challenge facing parents… is not a lack of choice but a lack of good schools.” Neither traditional public schools nor charter schools in Detroit are posting significantly increased test scores. Parents’ education is identified again and again as a barrier to their participating fully and effectively in school choice. “For example, 40 percent of parents with less than a high school diploma cited problems understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend compared to 24 percent for parents with a BA or more. Less-educated parents were 72 percent more likely to cite transportation as a barrier and 58 percent more likely to cite problems getting the information they needed to make a choice than more educated parents.”
Fragmentation of Services: “Who is responsible for ensuring that choice produces a good set of options for families in urban education? For Detroit and many other cities, the answer to this question is no longer the traditional public school district. Increasingly, a range of agencies and organizations–including local school districts, state agencies, charter school authorizers, and nonprofit providers—oversee and operate schools in American cities. These groups compete for students and often have few incentives to cooperate on crosscutting issues that shape how school choice works (or does not work) for families.” “This state of affairs makes it difficult for city leaders to address crosscutting issues (such as parent information systems or transportation) that affect everyone but are no one’s responsibility.” School choice exists across states with a range of school governance. Sometimes a city has one school district, but a city like Phoenix has 28 different school district jurisdictions within the city itself. “These multi-district systems pose special problems for charter operators who might draw families from a dozen or more nearby school districts. If a charter operator in one of these cities wanted to coordinate with local school districts on enrollment timelines or collaborate to share data on feeder patterns, for example, they might have to negotiate separate agreements with each school district.”
Lack of Oversight: Because nobody is in charge, oversight is too often entirely lacking. “… some districts are overseen by traditionally elected school boards, but others are overseen by mayors or states; some charter school authorizers are local school districts, but others are state education agencies, independent boards, higher education institutions, nonprofits, or municipal governments. In some places such as Ohio nonprofit charter authorizers may contract with for-profit organizations to manage the authorization process… By dispersing oversight authority across many different groups and putting those groups in competition for resources, it becomes much more difficult for city leaders to drive improvements… or address the challenges facing parents citywide.” A serious problem documented here is that lack of authority for oversight is making it impossible in many cities to put the worst charter schools out of business.
In this report the Center on Reinventing Public Education has published a scathing indictment of the way its school reform strategy is being implemented across America’s big cities. One would hope to read some accompanying concern about the validity of the strategy itself, but that is not the case in this report: “However it manifests in a particular city, school choice is increasingly the new normal in urban education and shows no sign of going away.” The authors title the report: Making School Choice Work.
But how to make the theory work? In their section of recommendations, the researchers plead with those who oversee the fragmented mass of education options to work together voluntarily with good will. “In many cities, however, the situation is too dire to wait for people to come together voluntarily. In those cases, state leaders, mayors, and others need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face large barriers to choice…. In other cases, formal governance changes may be necessary to reduce the number of authorizers involved, take away some agencies’ authority to open new schools, or create specialized agencies or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice.” Of course such reforms are dependent on the politics of state legislatures, where money and influence flow freely, but the report does not acknowledge such political realities. The report documents that the adoption of portfolio school reform across America’s big cities has opened a Pandora’s box of structural school governance problems that no state or city, to my knowledge, has been able to control.
It is fascinating to me that Lake and her colleagues persist—despite all their evidence that such school choice has brought neither access, nor opportunity, nor coordinated services or nor quality oversight—in declaring that traditional public schools are something that society needs to get away from and parents must have the right to escape. Why refuse even to consider that traditional public education—with the advantages of a coherent and coordinated system of services and a long and growing history of oversight to protect school quality, financial stewardship, equal access, and equal opportunity—may be the best kind of school governance to serve the needs and protect the rights of the greatest number of children?