Congress Should Defund the Charter Schools Program and Invest the Money in Title I and IDEA

The Network for Public Education published its scathing report on the federal Charter Schools Program three weeks ago, but as time passes, I continue to reflect on its conclusions. The report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride, is packed with details about failed or closed or never-opened charter schools.  The Network for Public Education depicts a program driven by neoliberal politicians hoping to spark innovation in a marketplace of unregulated startups underwritten by the federal government. The record of this 25 year federal program is dismal.

Here is what the Network for Public Education’s report shows us. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools that have been started across the country. Begun when Bill Clinton was President, this neoliberal—publicly funded, privatized—program has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  It has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded to schools that never opened or that were shut down: “We found that it is likely that as many as one third of all charter schools receiving CSP grants never opened, or opened and shut down.”  Many grants went to schools that illegally discriminated in some way to choose their students and served far fewer disabled students and English language learners than the local pubic schools.  Many of the CSP-funded charter schools were plagued by conflicts of interest profiteering, and mismanagement. The Department of Education has never investigated the scathing critiques of the program by the Department’s Office of Inspector Genera; neither has the Department of Education investigated the oversight practices of the state-by-state departments of education, called State Education Agencies by CSP, to which many of the grants were made. Oversight has declined under the Department’s leadership by Betsy DeVos.

One of the shocking findings in the Asleep at the Wheel report is that a series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. This use of the Charter Schools Program as a source for venture capital is especially shocking in the past decade under Presidents Obama and Trump, even as federal funding for essential public school programs has fallen. The Center on Budget and Policy priorities reports, for example, that public Title I formula funding dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

The authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report explain that the Department of Education itself justifies the high failure rate of schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants because the program’s purpose is to provide start-up money for entrepreneurs to experiment with innovative ideas for schools:  “CSP’s explanation for the high cost of failure was, ‘As with any start-up, school operators face a range of factors that may affect their school’s opening.  And as with any provider of start-up capital, the department learns from its investments.'”

Late in March, when the current Secretary of Education was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee about the findings in the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler quotes Betsy DeVos herself justifying the high rate of charter school failure with an argument that basically the Charter Schools Program provides venture capital to support entrepreneurship and innovation: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it, and that’s what should happen.”

The Department of Education took a big leap toward support for social entrepreneurship (and diminished attention to the Department’s traditional programming) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education between 2009 and  December of 2015.  To lead the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement, Duncan hired Jim Shelton.  Before joining the department, Shelton had, according to a Department of Education biography, earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened more and more charter schools.  He became a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.

To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer—the Gates Foundation—directly into government. Shelton oversaw not only the Charter Schools Program but also Race to the Top, which made large federal stimulus grants to states, which had each been given (by the Gates Foundation) a quarter of a million dollars apiece to hire grant writers to develop creative ways to invest federal stimulus money to support the turnaround of so-called failing schools. To qualify, the states had to agree to Duncan’s prescribed turnaround plans and also promise to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools. There is now widespread agreement that Race to the Top failed to fulfill its stated goal of improving school achievement. After leaving the department, Duncan and Shelton both continued their careers in grant-funded social entrepreneurship; at least their work has no longer been publicly funded. Shelton ran education programming for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Duncan has been working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos now leads the U.S. Department of Education, and her leadership has further reduced oversight, according to the Asleep at the Wheel report: “Under the current administration, while Congressional funding for the CSP rises, the quality of the applications and awardees has further declined.”

The Charter Schools Program is the only one of DeVos’s school privatization initiatives whose budget Congress has increased.  The Network for Public Education traces its funding history: “The program was appropriated at $219 million in 2004.  The budget went up to $256 million in 2010, $333 million in 2016, then to $342 million in 2017, $400 million in 2018 and is now at $440 million for FY 2019.”  In his proposed FY 2020 budget, President Trump has asked Congress to add another $60 million.

When Organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund or today’s mega-foundations experiment with educational innovation, the risk is underwritten by private capital or philanthropic grants from the Walton, Gates, or Broad Foundations, for example. And if the experiments fail, the money lost is private.  In the case of the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department of Education has been gambling with $4 billion of our tax dollars—money desperately needed by the public schools in our nation’s poorest communities—money that could have been invested, for example, in Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children or in implementation of programs to meet the mandates of the IDEA.  At their inception, Congress promised to fund a significant part of the cost of both Title I and IDEA, but Congressional appropriations have chronically fallen short.  Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has currently introduced the “Keep Our PACT Act,” which if passed would significantly increase the federal commitment to supporting federal these priorities. Van Hollen explains: “Title I, which gives assistance to America’s highest-need schools, is a critical tool to ensure that every child, no matter the zip code, has access to a quality education. However, it has been deeply underfunded, shortchanging our most vulnerable students living in poverty… (T)he Title I formula was underfunded by $347 billion from 2005-2017… Similarly, IDEA calls on the federal government to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Congress has never fully funded the law. Currently, IDEA state grants are funded at just 14.7 percent.”

The Asleep at the Wheel report’s authors conclude: “The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.  Hundreds of schools have been approved for grants despite serious concerns noted by reviewers… The… lack of rigor and investigation in the review process, and the seeming willingness of the CSP program to offer grants despite concerns expressed by reviewers raise questions about whether this program is truly committed to jump-starting schools that hold the greatest promise of success, or whether simply letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and accepting the chaos and waste of repeated failure is really the operational model.”

For 25 years, the U.S. Department of Education has enabled, and Congress has funded, a failed, neoliberal, market-based, and unregulated charter school experiment.  In an article he published last spring, the McMaster University education theorist, Henry Giroux said it best: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public….”

This blog has previously explored the Asleep at the Wheel report here and here.

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The Difficulty of Cleaning Arne Duncan’s Awful Policies Out of the Laws of 50 States

Sometimes I find myself considering how our society arrived in 2019 at what striking schoolteachers this year have been demonstrating is an existential crisis for our system of public education.

Partly, of course, Betsy DeVos, our current Education Secretary, and all her friends including the Koch brothers have been working for years to substitute privatized, marketplace school choice for what many of us prize as our universal system of public schools. The idea of public education is a network of schools in every American community, schools that are publicly owned, regulated by law, and operated by locally elected school boards. Our society’s promise, an ideal we have increasingly realized through a history of making the dream accessible to more and more children, is that the public schools will meet all children’s needs and protect their rights.  Supreme Court cases and civil rights laws have expanded protection for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds, no matter their immigration status. The law protects services for children whose primary language may be other than English, for children who are disabled, and for children whatever their gender or sexual orientation.

But even with all her money, added to the money of her friends, and with the help of billionaire philanthropists who have served as her allies, Betsy DeVos isn’t powerful enough to have so thoroughly upended public education. We were all complicit somehow, although we didn’t collectively realize it, despite that many of us have been protesting along the way.

Over half a century ago, in The Affluent Society, economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “the conventional wisdom” to describe “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.… the consensus is exceedingly broad. Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.”  In other words the conventional wisdom about hard and complicated subjects in public policy is made up of what we all believe because everybody else seems to believe it.

More recently, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have described how such conventional wisdom can somehow become acceptable despite plenty of contradictory evidence. Writing about the emergence of a bipartisan consensus about taxation and the role of government beginning in the Reagan era and continuing today, they write: “These changes did not go unnoticed or occur without pushback. Yet those who sought to defend or resurrect the ideas under siege found themselves caught in what communications experts call a ‘spiral of silence.’ In such a spiral, opinions become dominant because of acquiescence as well as acceptance. Even if individuals do not agree with an idea, their sense that it is shared broadly makes them reluctant to voice dissent. In time, this anticipation can create self-fulfilling cycles—a ‘spiral’—in which conflicting ideas are pushed to the periphery. When alternative understandings are no longer voiced confidently, we collectively forget their power.” (American Amnesia, p. 198)

Over the past quarter century, test-based school accountability and school privatization have quietly become fixtures of the bipartisan conventional wisdom about education. This year, striking public school teachers across the states have challenged the conventional wisdom by reinforcing, to use Hacker and Pierson’s words, “alternative understandings which have no longer been voiced confidently” to demand that we value the public schools that serve 90 percent of our society’s children.

No Child Left Behind, the 2002, omnibus federal education law, set up a scheme to judge schools by standardized test scores and punish low-scoring public schools until they improved their students’ scores. The scheme pretty much ignored resource inputs like equitable distribution of school funding, and it also ignored what has since then been repeatedly reconfirmed: that test scores are extremely highly correlated with children’s circumstances at home and in their neighborhoods. Concentrated poverty and segregation are central factors that the conventional wisdom glossed over.

This year striking schoolteachers have, for many of us at least, created a new receptivity to the facts.  Teachers have created a new context in which Nathan Robinson’s recent analysis in Current Affairs resonates in a new way.  This blog covered Robinson’s piece last week, but it is worth considering again.  Robinson specifically dissects Race to the Top, Arne Duncan’s plan, embodied in the 2009 federal economic stimulus, but Race to the Top merely magnified and intensified the strategy and specific details of No Child Left Behind, except that Race to the Top added another business strategy: competition.

Robinson explains that Race to the Top “gave $4.3 billion in funding to U.S. schools through a novel mechanism: Instead of giving out the aid based on how much a state’s schools needed it, the Department of Education awarded it through a competition.  Applications ‘were graded on a 500-point scale according to the rigor of the reforms proposed and their compatibility with four administration priorities: developing common standards and assessments; improving teacher training, evaluation, and retention policies; creating better data systems; and adopting preferred school-turnaround strategies.'”  The four turnarounds (originally defined in No Child Left Behind) were firing principals and teachers in so-called “failing” schools, closing these schools, or turning them into privately operated charter schools, or turning them over to an education management organization.

Looking back, Robinson wonders how our people permitted this to happen: “There is something deeply objectionable about nearly every part of Race to the Top.  First, the very idea of having states scramble to compete for federal funds means that children are given additional support based on how good their state legislatures are at pleasing the president, rather than how much those children need support.  Michigan got no Race to the Top money, and Detroit’s schools didn’t see a penny of this $4.3 billion, because it didn’t win the ‘race.’  This ‘fight to the death’ approach (come to think of it, a better name for the program) was novel, since ‘historically, most federal education funds have been distributed through categorical grant programs that allocate money to districts on the basis of need-based formulas.’… Once upon a time, liberals talking about how to fix schools would talk about making sure all teachers had the resources they need to give students a quality education.  Now, they were importing the competitive capitalist model into government: Show results or find yourself financially starved. The focus on ‘innovation,’ data, and technology is misguided, too.  Innovation is not necessarily improvement… When it came time, in 2016, to assess what Race to the Top had actually managed to accomplish, the administration conceded that ‘a vast literature examining the effectiveness of the types of policies promoted by Race to the Top provides no conclusive evidence on whether they improve student outcomes’….”

In one way, however, Arne Duncan was an extremely savvy politician. His Race to the Top competition magnified the test-and-punish policies of No Child Left Behind in 50 different ways and set them in concrete by bribing the 50 state legislatures to enact these policies into their own laws.  By dangling Race to the Top money in front of state legislatures in 2009 at the height of a recession, Duncan made it hard for state legislatures to resist temptation.  The result is that today, while Arne Duncan has left government to promote social entrepreneurship and work for a Chicago project of Lorene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, the educational policies of Race to the Top have been cast into the concrete of state laws, or at least buried in the statehouse sludge where nobody can remember them or identify them or pull them out.  And they have seeped into the conventional wisdom.

Here are some examples from my state, Ohio.

In No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style, Ohio continues to identify so-called “failing” schools.  My state continues to use aggregate student test scores as the basis of a branding system that assigns schools letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.  And it publicly ranks our public schools and school districts from best to worst based on standardized test scores.

When a public school is branded with an F, the old school turnaround strategies from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—requirements that have now been dropped at the federal level—continue to apply in Ohio.  The students in the so-called “failing” schools can secure an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child. Ohio also permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts.

The number of these vouchers and privatized charter schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”

Ohio uses state takeover rather than school closure as the punishment when a school district has been rated F for three consecutive years. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.

In Race to the Top and later in his No Child Left Behind Waivers program, Arne Duncan demanded that states commit to evaluating teachers based on the Value Added that could, supposedly, be identified in their students’ standardized test scores. Ohio complied enthusiastically with Duncan’s teacher evaluation policies by making 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized test scores of the teacher’s students.  Then, finally, after the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association both condemned as unreliable the use of Value Added Measures for evaluating teachers, Congress ended the policy.  In the new federal education law, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress removed the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of the evaluation of teachers. Only in the summer of 2018, however, did Ohio finally amend its Duncan-driven policy for teachers’ evaluations. Finally the Legislature folded the use of test scores into a more complex evaluation that, lawmakers said, tracks how teachers are using test score data to inform their instruction. The new system won’t be implemented until the 2020-2021 academic year, however, and it still incorporates students’ test scores in a vague way. Today in 2019, Ohio still makes 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ standardized test scores.

In Ohio, No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top style punishment, not assistance, remains the strategy for the schools in our poorest communities. All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

A growing consensus that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were misguided in their obsessive use of high stakes standardized tests is widely documented in the research literature. The biggest problem is that these policies targeted the public schools in the nation’s poorest communities for punishment.  In his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz, a testing expert at Harvard University, explains how test-and-punish works: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do…  Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

From West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to Los Angeles, schoolteachers have been striking all year to show us how all this has gone wrong—robbing their schools of essential programs and staff.  I hope these people who know the conditions in their schools better than the rest of us will continue to challenge the conventional wisdom of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top Era.

A big problem is that Arne Duncan induced state legislatures to embed his favorite ideas into the laws of the 50 states. It isn’t going to be so easy to get them cleaned out.

More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

Beware Democrats Trying to Burnish the Reputation of Corporate School Reform

Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support.  This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?

For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top.  To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.

The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist.  She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers.  She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats.  She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.

Today:  Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project.  Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.

Warning:  Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations.  Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.

Don’t be fooled by DFER:  One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause.  Later DFER formed affiliates across several states.  In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new  communications strategy.

In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’  These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”

Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience.  In this case marketing means making the language vague.  Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.

Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.”  From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education.  (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)

Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed.  It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.”  And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.

Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work:  Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010.  In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse.  Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.

These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do.  Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it.  As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back.  We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs.  Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that.  There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”

Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really?  Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”

Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t…  He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”

Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle…  Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017.  And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”

Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own.  Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation.  Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.

It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools.  Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps.  In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.

It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.

What Is the Legacy of Renaissance 2010 School Choice in Chicago?

On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.

Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools.  It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”

The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions.  Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”

The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What was Renaissance 2010?  After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.

The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.

Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”  The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s  Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.  A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance.  Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, FailingBrown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference

In the beginning of I Married a Communist, a novel about the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Philip Roth, who died in May of this year, introduces a character who, everybody would agree, is a model high school teacher. Mr. Ringold, the teacher, and his student (Nathan, the novel’s narrator) both live in Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Ringold teaches kids from his neighborhood, students he deeply understands. He cares about them, but more to the point, he cares about what they read and insists that they learn to think about it.

Here is a short excerpt, a dialog between Mr. Ringold and Nathan, then an adolescent, who rides his bicycle past the teacher’s house on the way to return books to the library:

“Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history.” One is about the life of of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?'”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”

“‘Paine said,’ I told Mr. Ringold, ‘I wrote a little book because I wanted men to see what they were shooting at.”

The teaching continues as Roth sets up the plot through the first chapter of the novel. Mr. Ringold, attentive to every opportunity to challenge his student, holds himself accountable—personally responsible—for challenging Nathan to develop probing intellectual habits.

Compare Mr. Ringold’s understanding of education to what Stanford University education professor emeritus Larry Cuban recently described as the wave of school accountability that has swept the country since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983: “The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….”

Technology and data are the key. Financial bonus incentives—not teachers’ personal responsibility for their students—are understood as the motivator. Forgotten is the human connection— the teacher questioning, cajoling, encouraging, enjoying learning with her students.

Cuban quotes Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Education Secretary, who was a primary driver of the cult of efficiency: “Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategy for boosting productivity is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.”

In the passage Cuban quotes, Duncan’s thinking is depersonalized. The subjects of the sentences—the forces conducting the educational action—are abstractions: technology, the military and “the best strategy.” It is as though Duncan, who never taught school prior to becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools or becoming U.S. Secretary of Education, lacks any feel for teaching.

Through all these years of data-driven, outcomes-based, efficiency-framed education theory, Mike Rose, the education writer and a UCLA professor of education, has continued to remind us that schooling must always be about human relationship. Rose just posted a new piece: Teaching As a Way of Seeing. He begins: “‘The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, ‘is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible. Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.”

Rose continues: “These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.”

Rose quotes a high school teacher who aspires to be the kind of teacher Philip Roth created in Mr. Ringold: “‘I was a strange kid,’ a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, ‘but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.'”

Chicago Sticks to Portfolio School Reform Despite All the Evidence that It Isn’t Working

Inertia is a scientific term from physics: something in motion will stay in motion unless some kind of external force changes its speed or trajectory.  In a less technical way, inertia is also a principle applicable to social policy. Inertia and commitment to “implementing the plan” are such strong forces that they will block out evidence that the plan is not working—has never been working.  All evidence to the contrary, the plan just keeps on being implemented.  Take, for example, portfolio school reform in Chicago.

We’ve had over a decade now to watch what has happened in the second large school district to institute portfolio school reform.  (Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already launched a similar program in New York City.) Wikipedia, which can be trusted for such basic factual information tells us: “Renaissance 2010… was announced in June 2004 by the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago. Renaissance 2010 called for 100 new schools by 2010. Under Renaissance 2010, the Chicago Public Schools closed over 80 public schools, and sought to create 100 charter schools by 2010. These schools were to be held accountable for test score performance through 5-year contracts while following one of three governance structures: charter, contract, or performance.”

The academic outfit that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell.  (CRPE is not an academic division of the University of Washington but is instead a Gates-funded think tank located at the university. That distinction is important.) CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”  CRPE also lists seven components of a portfolio strategy: good options and choices, school autonomy, pupil-based funding for each school, talent-seeking strategy, schools choosing from an array of independent providers, performance-based accountability, and extensive public engagement.  All this, claims CRPE, will ensure “a great school for every child in every neighborhood.”

Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, Arne Duncan’s project before he became the U.S. Secretary of Education, epitomizes portfolio school reform. And Renaissance 2010 became the template for the sort of governance reform Duncan brought to the U.S. Department of Education as the basis for the ill-fated School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top programs.  The theory is competitive: you give parents school choice; you attach funding to the school on a per-student basis so that when students leave, their funding follows; you reward winning schools by keeping them open; and you punish losing schools by closing them. Chicago has experienced an unprecedented number of school closures on the mostly African American South and West Sides.

And today, February 28, 2018, the Chicago Board of Education will vote on another school closure or phase out plan centered in Englewood, the South Side neighborhood just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The board will close or perhaps phase out four high schools and one elementary school and set in motion a plan for a new high school to open a year in the future. Families have been furious that their high school students would be displaced over the next year. Protests have perhaps been effective enough that the school board may phase out rather than abruptly closing three of the high schools, which would allow current students to graduate from the schools they have been attending.  But nobody is proposing to end portfolio school reform in Chicago;  once a portfolio plan is in place, the CEO is hired not so much to run the public schools as to manage the portfolio plan.

Here are merely some of the factors that the theory of portfolio school reform seems to have missed.

First, as Chicago has continued to launch new charter schools and specialty schools and selective schools, parents have been enticed by the advertising along with the idea that at least at the selective schools, their children will study with a more elite peer group. Parents have been willing to try out the choice schools and have their children travel long distances to elite schools and thereby abandon the neighborhood schools, whose funding drops as children leave. This process has hollowed out the comprehensive neighborhood high schools, which have been left serving a very vulnerable population with a higher percentage of students in special education. Last week’s Chicago Sun-Times reported that there has even been cheating on the lotteries, cheating in which school leaders have been able to find space for their children or relatives’ children in more elite schools, leaving behind students without powerful connections. This is a lifeboat strategy gone bad—a system that saves the privileged and leaves behind on the sinking ship the children who lack means or power or extreme talent.

Reporter Sarah Karp for WBEZ News describes the response of Janice Jackson, the current CEO of the Chicago Public Schools: “Jackson casts the dire situation of these Englewood schools largely as the result of circumstances beyond the school district’s control, like a hurricane. Families make choices, she said, by moving out of the area or sending their children elsewhere—options she insists all families deserve.” Karp reviews the history: “Daley (former Mayor Richard M. Daley) and Duncan also wanted to apply pressure on poor performing neighborhood schools across Chicago by creating competition with new, privately run schools. To advance this goal, in 2004 Daley announced Renaissance 2010, a plan to open 100 new schools within the decade. Many of the new schools were charter schools. Those are run by private organizations but are publicly funded.  Englewood, where many of the schools were poor performing, got an influx of new schools. Between 2005 and 2015, CPS opened nine high schools within about two miles of Hope (one of the schools now threatened with closure)… Chicago has always tied school budgets to enrollment, but in recent years as CPS has adopted a market-based approach to education, the relationship has become stronger. Starting in 2013, CPS implemented student-based budgeting, where money follows students. That thrust schools into fierce competition for students.”  Karp calls all this “A death spiral.”

Chicago has experimented with portfolio school reform at the same time its poorest neighborhoods have been decimated by the foreclosure crisis. Population declined in very poor neighborhoods like Englewood due to the financial crisis, but there is evidence that destabilization of the neighborhood’s schools has also contributed to a trend of families looking for more stable school districts in which to rear their children.  In December 2017,  Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracked “thousands of black students leav(ing) Chicago for other segregated districts.”  Belsha describes families who feel pushed out of Chicago, a city that has come to feel unwelcoming: “Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its black population, or more than 250,000 people. In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 black students. Now, the school district which was majority black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts… (S)ome academics blame city officials for making it harder for poor African-Americans, in particular, to live in Chicago: They closed neighborhood schools and mental health clinics; failed to rebuild public housing, dispersing thousands of poor black families across the region, and inadequately responded to gun violence, unemployment and foreclosures in black communities. ‘It’s a menu of disinvestment’ says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. ‘The message that public policy sends to black families in the city is we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.’”

Here is the conclusion of a March 2017, Roosevelt University study of how portfolio school reform may have contributed to this trend in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in a 2016 brief for the National Education Policy Center, The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, remind us that portfolio school reform has substituted accountability-based school governance changes for the more expensive and likely more effective reform that could have been tried: investing in addressing poverty and financially supporting the schools serving children in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  Here are Mathis and Welner: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed. In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio’ districts, and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack… School turnaround approaches have, in general, been very disappointing, in large part because of the problems with closures and charter schools. The churn in the system, loss of institutional knowledge and loss of culture results in community and school disturbance and instability. Closing even low-performing schools can prove disruptive as community support dissipates….”

We’ll need to watch what action is taken today by the Chicago Board of Education—an entity, incidentally, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not elected by Chicago’s citizens. Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who was instrumental in the 2015, month-long hunger strike that eventually re-opened Dyett High School as a neighborhood high school and who leads the national Journey for Justice Alliance, is reported to be concerned by the kind of displacement that has been repeated endlessly across Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods in the past decade due to school closures: “Stopping the schools from closing, it’s only a small part of the issue. What is the vision for public education for working and low-income black families? Who shapes that vision?”

Brown’s question is really at the heart of the school choice debate. Should education for the children of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods be driven by the invisible hand of the school-choice marketplace as parents are lured by advertising to try out the latest charter school—and as their child carries funding from the neighborhood school? And what about a tiered system of selective schools and neighborhood schools, but where funding follows the child? Does the school district have an obligation to the children who are not selected or who elect to attend school in their neighborhoods?