Rick Perlstein on the Birth of Portfolio School Reform: Chicago—2003

There is nothing linear or didactic about historian-journalist, Rick Perlstein’s new piece in Jacobin Magazine, The Chicago School.  This is the story of a school district being ruined, and it doesn’t even touch on today’s financial mess—the failure of Illinois to distribute funds fairly—the risky bond investments that indebted the district in the financial collapse of 2008—the failures to pay into the pension funds and subsequent borrowing out of those same funds.  This is about a much broader topic, though Perlstein never uses today’s name—portfolio school reform.  Portfolio school reform—managed through mayoral governance and an appointed school board—is what has happened in Chicago and what has been copied across many of America’s biggest school districts. (It was later branded by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.) Portfolio school districts are places where school choice is expanded as an ongoing policy, with lots of charter schools and all schools—neighborhood schools as well as charters—managed like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and shedding the schools that seem to be failing.

In Chicago, business and civic elites came up with the idea, and they called it Renaissance 2010: “Travel back with me… to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEO of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools… They found hope… in a new kind of educational institution called a ‘charter school’—‘publicly-funded but independent, innovative schools that operate with greater flexibility and give parents whose children attend failing schools an option they do not have.’… ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools,’ the Education Committee concluded.  ‘These would be new schools, operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ ”  The plan was based on competition: “The 103-page report thus deployed the word ‘data’ forty-five times, ‘score,’ ‘scored,’ or ‘scoring’ 60 times—and ‘test,’ ‘tested,’ and ‘testing,’ or ‘exam’ and ‘examination,’ some 1.47573 times per page.”

Power has always been at the heart of this kind of school reform: “And since these were the behind-the-scenes barons who veritably ran the city, it wasn’t even a year before the Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 125 S. Clark St. announced the ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative to close eighty traditional public schools and open precisely one hundred charters by 2010.  Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.’  Although, funny thing, rather than resembling the plucky, innovative—‘flexible’—startups the rhetoric promised, the schools that flourished looked like factories stamped out by central planning.  The skills most rewarded by Chicago’s charter boom became corporate marketing, regulatory capture, and outright graft.”

The Noble network opened 16 charter schools.  “Indeed, Noble runs just the kind of schools you’d expect to be sponsored by industrialists: their students are underprivileged waifs in uniform who are fined for minor disciplinary infractions,” and the school’s philosophy describes “strong leadership, meaningful use of data, and a high degree of accountability.  Other new schools, like the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, were subsidiaries of national for-profit companies like Edison Learning.  And, finally, there were three campuses—eventually ballooning to sixteen—run by the ‘neighborhood organization’ UNO.  UNO was basically an old-school machine organization, rife with padded contracts, nepotistic hires, and graft. Its CEO, Juan Rangel, was Emanuel’s 2011 campaign chairman.  In 2014, the network was charged with securities fraud.”

Business, civic leadership, and local philanthropy came together to raise money to enhance the new school reform venture. Back in 2000, before it all began, came the Chicago Public Education Fund, which calls itself  “one of the first city-based philanthropic venture funds in the nation.” 2004 brought the Renaissance Schools Fund which rebranded itself as New Schools for Chicago in 2011.  The financial and thought leadership of the new Chicago schools venture has been provided by many people whose names are well known—Bruce Rauner; Arne Duncan; and local leaders like Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust; Helen Zell, whose husband owns the Chicago Tribune; Kenneth Griffith, billionaire hedge fund manager; Marty Nesbitt, friend of Barack Obama and head of a firm that acquires companies; Penny Pritzker; and Deborah Quazzo of GSV Capital Management, who later served on Chicago’s appointed school board and who has also been accused of shady dealings around educational technology and the Chicago schools.

Perlstein fills in years’ of details about interwoven spheres of influence and policies instituted to enhance competition in a school district managed as though it were a stock portfolio: “Last year, the CPS shifted to something called ‘school based budgeting’… Where previously a principal could choose his or her teachers based on qualifications and experience, since personnel costs were charged to the entire school system, now principals have to cut personnel expenditures to the bone.  Say, by hiring three recent college grads, or six Teach for America kids, for the cost of a nationally-board-certified teacher with decades paying classroom dues.  Budgets are based on attendance.  Attendance is calculated on an ongoing basis.  In a system in which ‘neighborhood schools’ are vulnerable to losing students to ‘selective enrollment’ schools, this turns every school against each other… Although, in an irony, charter schools are often protected from this ruthless market dynamic.  Because, more and more, they are part of ‘networks”: miniature school districts that can shift burdens from one school to another….”

I urge you to explore more of the details in Perlstein’s story of Chicago—a microcosm of today’s school reform across America’s big cities—and to enjoy the intricate comparison of Chicago school reform to Charles Dickens’ heartless, utilitarian academy run by Thomas Gradgrind in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

Perlstein concludes with a story of the closure of a small, stand-alone charter—the kind that Albert Shanker first imagined when he thought about the idea of charter schools.  In Chicago’s competitive school marketplace, this small charter is being shuttered for lagging test scores, but tearful students and their families pack the auditorium to testify at the hearing preceding the closure: “The tears attest to a fact the school reformers are constitutionally incapable of understanding: schools are not like convenience stores.  They are living, breathing communities, congeries of qualitative values and human interrelationships, storehouses of trust, friendship, heritage, and other such difficult-to-quantify characteristics that can only but accrue over time, and which, once severed, can never be replaced.  The tears are products of the incredulity that grown men and women in positions of authority cannot grasp this simple human fact.”  “On the dias were a half dozen or so board members in bankers’ casual-Friday togs: people like a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers L.L.P. .., a municipal bond specialist, a lawyer, a practitioner of ‘tax planning and corporate creation,’ the president of a curriculum development company.”

Just to clarify, Perlstein adds: “It’s not that schools never fail, should never close.  It’s that they should not close without due consideration that a school is also a human institution, with its own interconnected ecology.  Keeping that community together has value in itself, and adds value.  When you shutter a school, you kill something: a network of trust, a web of relationships.  You have to start again from scratch.”

Here is a timely and very sad irony: Perlstein begins his article by quoting a post from the blog of beloved, Blaine Elementary Principal and long critic of portfolio school reform in Chicago, Troy LaRaviere: “Whenever I try to take a break from writing about CPS to focus on other aspects of my professional and personal life, CPS officials do something so profoundly unethical, incompetent, and/or corrupt that my conscience calls me to pick up the pen once more.”  On April 20, the date Perlstein’s article went to press, the Chicago Public Schools terminated Troy LaRaviere’s tenure as principal at Blaine Elementary School.  DNA Info, Chicago, reports: “Parents were notified late Wednesday of the abrupt change in leadership in an e-mail from Elizabeth Kirby, chief of schools strategy and planning for Chicago Public Schools.” LaRaviere has won awards for his school leadership and he has been nominated to run for president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.  He is quoted by DNA Info  in a post from March about the current financial crisis in the Chicago schools and the ongoing negotiations with the teachers union: “Our teachers have been battered by this administration’s attacks and forced to live with the blatant hypocrisy behind the calls for teacher financial sacrifices while the district continues to engage in wasteful spending, reckless borrowing and their steadfast commitment to steering CPS dollars to banks and investors that profit from our schools’ losses.”

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