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.”

The Broader Meaning of Chicago’s Dyett Hunger Strike

The website of the New Yorker magazine just published a fascinating piece by Eve Ewing, written to mark the importance of the recent 34-day hunger strike in Chicago that pressured Rahm Emanuel’s administration to preserve Dyett High School in that city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

According to a report by WBEZ Chicago, though the hunger strikers did not achieve all of their demands, they did secure a promise that the new Dyett high school will, “have a neighborhood boundary, meaning all children in the attendance-area could attend without having to first meet minimum test-score requirements or go through a lottery (nearly all Chicago high schools opened in the past decade have had citywide boundaries and require students to apply; no one is guaranteed admission).”  “(T)he roots of the fight began years ago, when CPS shook up the local schools in the Bronzeville-Kenwood-Washington Park area by turning the high school, King, into a test-in school. Dyett became the default attendance-area high school for the area…. The school board voted in 2012 to phase Dyett out; the last class graduated in June with 13 students.”

In her New Yorker piece, Ewing sets Chicago Public Schools’ closure of Dyett High School in the context of the history and impact of Chicago’s public housing—a history of public policy reinforcing neighborhood segregation in Chicago, where poverty remains concentrated decades after African Americans came north in the Great Migration to escape just such conditions.  In the 1950s, “When C.H.A. (Chicago Housing Authority) officials appeared before the city council with proposals for new housing construction, white aldermen routinely slashed at the lists of prospective locations until those projects slated for black communities were all that remained.  What resulted was the construction of five more (in addition to the original Ida B. Wells project) high-density housing projects, bringing the total in Bronzeville to eight thousand two hundred and thirty-three units…. In 1970, the families who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes… averaged six people each—a total of six thousand two hundred and fifty adults and twenty thousand four hundred and forty children.  Children outnumbered adults by more than three to one…”

“Ida B. Wells, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other Bronzeville high-rise projects have all been torn down as part of the C.H.A.’s ‘Plan for Transformation,’ which Mayor Richard M. Daley launched in 1999… The agency declared that residents would have the right to return to the newly constructed mixed-income housing that would replace the high-rises… In 2005. Venkatesh and Isil Celimli wrote that seventy-five percent of C.H.A. residents surveyed stated a preference for returning to their old neighborhoods, but less than twenty percent would be able to do so.”  The neighborhoods south of Chicago’s Loop have gentrified. Developers of mixed income housing failed to include enough apartments whose rent would be subsidized for low-income families. Once again, public policy, which was supposedly designed to relieve overcrowding for poor Black families, served the needs of wealthier citizens who wield power in the private housing marketplace that shapes our cities.  The poorest residents of Bronzeville, forced out by the clearing of the towering housing projects, were merely displaced into other communities where poverty is concentrated.

The history of urban renewal and the development of public housing is filled with policies that were intended to improve conditions for the poorest and most segregated families in America’s big cities, but which instead had the effect of exacerbating racial segregation and concentrated poverty.  The Dyett hunger strikers, while they didn’t achieve all of their local demands, succeeded in exposing educational policies that have purported to improve America’s lowest scoring schools but have instead had the effect of condemning the schools with the label of “failure,” condemning their teachers as unable to raise test scores, imposing federally mandatory turnarounds like “school closure,” and encouraging families who can afford it to move to places with better ratings.  Some states have even been awarding letter grades for the schools being rated, encouraging wealthier families to move to the school districts rated “A” instead of staying in communities with grades of “D” or “F”—driving families with money to wealthy exurbs and away from cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Education policy over the past 15 years has been driven, top-down, by the federal government. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act tied a mass of punitive policy to a school’s incapacity to raise aggregate student standardized test scores for every subgroup of children; the schools that haven’t been able to raise scores are the ones experiencing school closures like the one at Dyett.  While a half century of research has demonstrated that test scores are closely tied to family wealth or poverty, No Child Left Behind and the Obama punitive policies like Race to the Top have ignored the impacts of poverty—homelessness, joblessness, food insecurity, high rates of parental incarceration, high rates of family mobility, lack of adequate medical and dental care, chronic absence, and so on—on the children in the schools with the lowest scores.

The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon recently discussed these issues in an interview published on the inequality website, Too Much, Segregation’s Insidious New Look.  “We have a market-driven housing world.  With inequality in family income growing, families can afford to spend increasingly different amounts on housing.  They end up sorting themselves more into neighborhoods that have housing at the price they can afford.  In metro areas where income inequality has increased the most, we see income segregation increase the most… There is, however, some interesting new research from Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.  She seems to be finding that increasing income segregation among families with children is driving most of the increase in income segregation.  Childless households—whether single people or elderly people or couples who don’t have kids—aren’t becoming that much more segregated from each other…. It’s really families with children that are becoming more economically segregated, and this suggests that concerns about where children are going to grow up and what schools they’ll go to—and maybe who they’re going to play with—are interacting with income inequality to drive the patterns of income segregation.”

Reardon explores the implications for education: “Increasing economic segregation means that kids from high-income families live with kids from other high-income families and go to schools that have more resources.  They go on to do better in school and have a better chance at attending a good college.  We have evidence over the last few decades that the achievement gap—the test score gap—between students from high-and low-income families is widening, and maybe that’s related to these processes.”

There has been a huge effort by policy makers in both political parties to sell the public on the idea that standardized testing and subsequent punishments for schools that cannot quickly raise scores are the best way to hold schools accountable for their seeming inability to serve our poorest children, many of them children of color.  The Dyett hunger strikers accomplished something very important by exposing that policies like school closure only further punish neighborhoods that have historically been underserved—places where school funding has never been adjusted to address the needs of a mass of very poor children, communities where the tax base has collapsed but state funding has never been equalized to address the needs of communities whose fiscal capacity has been reduced.

The Dyett hunger strikers forced the general public to pay attention.  The hunger strike, covered widely in the press, was mounted by parents and community members who understand personally just how today’s education policy is being experienced by the children and parents who live in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.

Chicago Cuts Funding for Neighborhood Schools, Continues to Implement Unproven Reforms

Last week Chicago’s school board passed a budget for the 2014-2015 school year that, according to the Chicago Tribune, “cuts funding to traditional schools by $72 million while increasing spending by the same amount for privately run charter and contract schools.” The Tribune reports that this budget reduces funding for neighborhood schools for the second year in a row.

Earlier this summer, Pauline Lipman and researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released a report that examines the impact on Chicago’s families of the city’s school governance changes in the past two decades that have rapidly opened unregulated  charter schools while closing a mass of traditional public schools.  Here is the summary that begins that report:

“On May 22, 2013 Chicago’s appointed Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, turn around five others, and co-locate 17 elementary schools, affecting roughly 40,000 students.  This was the largest number of schools closed at one time in the U.S.  Since 2001, Chicago Public Schools has closed, turned-around, phased-out, or consolidated over 150 neighborhood public schools in low-income African American and Latino communities.  This policy has disproportionately affected African American students and communities.  At the same time, CPS has expanded privately run charter and turnaround schools.  These actions should be understood in relation to CPS’ ‘portfolio’ district agenda in which schools are part of a market of largely interchangeable public and private services, rather than stabilizing neighborhood institutions.”

Lipman and her colleagues conducted qualitative research based on extensive interviews with the parents whose children were affected by the most recent school closures and reassignments.  They conclude: “School actions have hit African American students disproportionately.  Some shuttered schools were iconic institutions of African American cultural and intellectual life… Closing a school is a drastic action.  Schools are stable institutions in communities facing the destabilizing effects of public and private disinvestment, poverty, high unemployment, and housing insecurity.  Closing a school may result in children traveling outside their neighborhoods, siblings attending different schools, trauma to children, and the loss of jobs for teachers, as well as other education workers who are often community residents… Nevertheless the trend of closing schools (and replacing public neighborhood schools with charter and ‘choice schools’) is increasing despite very limited data about either its effectiveness in increasing academic performance or the impact closings have on children, families, and communities.”

Another study released in June by a task force appointed by the Illinois General Assembly to study the impact of changes in school facilities and student reassignments raised similar concerns: “In both the 2012 and 2013 School Actions and Closings, communities of color and the most vulnerable students, including those experiencing homelessness and those with disabilities, were impacted the most by CPS’ Actions.  Approximately 90 percent of the students directly impacted by School Actions and Closings in 2012 and 2013 were African American.  An estimated 2,615 homeless students attended the Welcoming Schools and the schools that CPS closed in 2013; 2,097 Special Education students (those with disabilities and Individual Education Plans or IEPs) were impacted.”

The legislatively appointed Chicago Education Facilities Task Force Report concludes overall: “Since the Illinois General Assembly granted Mayoral Control over Chicago’s public school district in 1995, there has been a concentration of decision making about the nature and direction of public education in Illinois’ largest city, and the nation’s 3rd largest school system.  These decisions have had substantial and sometimes drastic immediate and long standing effects on students, families, neighborhoods and the city.  Once former Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his ‘Renaissance 2010’ initiative in 2003 to create 100 new schools by 2010, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has not only opened new schools (mainly charters); the district has also been closing neighborhood public schools and drastically reconfiguring the public school system in other ways.  Since 2008 alone, four different CPS administrations with average tenures of less than 3 years made far-reaching changes and decisions that Chicagoans will live with for generations.  These decisions have determined which students get to go to which schools; how to maintain school facilities; what the district’s capital spending priorities should be, and determined how and when to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on school repairs, renovations, and new construction.  Yet Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been making these decisions without adequate educational facilities planning or public input.”

The Sun Times reports that, ironically and perhaps understandably, in the new budget just passed Chicago Public Schools will be spending $1.8 million on its communications department.  One would hope this money will support extensive two-way communications with families and community leaders and not merely slick promotion of what has become known as Chicago School Reform—the type of portfolio school governance plan that Arne Duncan managed in Chicago and subsequently brought to us all, when as U.S. Secretary of Education he launched Race to the Top and a series of related “portfolio” school policies.

Chicago Again Imposes ‘Reconstitution’ As Though It Will Cure School Ills

The school board in Chicago will turn three more schools over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), its contractor of choice, when the turnaround ax falls this spring.  Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, began his career in Chicago, where he launched the turnaround options that have now been prescribed for the public schools across the country that score in the bottom 5 percent: reconstitution, closure, charterization, and one gentler option, transformation.  Last year Chicago used closure—of 50 schools.

This year it is reconstitution. The Chicago Sun Times reports, “Staff—down to janitors and lunchroom workers—must reapply for their positions…”  The principal must leave, and in most instances the entire staff will be replaced.  Three Chicago schools are being reconstituted because of low standardized test scores and low attendance rates.

But turnarounds by reconstitution haven’t always worked, according to a recent investigation by Catalyst-Chicago: “In CPS, however, more than half of turnaround schools are still among the lowest-performing schools. Some started badly and had to undergo another turnaround.  Others have improved more than other schools, yet are still far from meeting district averages, much less the statewide averages.   What’s more, large chunks of the new staff—teachers who were hand-picked and spent weeks over the summer getting to know each other, becoming a team and learning how to spark improvement when the school reopened—leave within a few years.”

AUSL is awarded extra money to turn around a school, reports the Sun Times.  The district awards  AUSL an additional $300,000 for start-up and an extra $420 per-student, per-year for five years.

Diane Ravitch devotes six pages of Reign of Error (pp. 214-219) to examining the school reforms launched in Chicago when Arne Duncan ran the school district.  She examines two very well known 2012 studies that tracked the impact of school reconstitution.  The first by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that schools that had been turned around with significant investment and new staff did improve, though not nearly as significantly as had been promised by AUSL.  The second investigation by Designs for Change found that while schools turned around by AUSL improved, a significant number of neighborhood schools that lacked the enormous financial investment provided for AUSL turnarounds but that were governed by very effective Local School Councils—involving community members, parents, teachers, and administrators working collaboratively—improved even more.  Designs for Change titled its 2012 report, Chicago’s Democratically-Led Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform Chicago’s ‘Turnaround Schools.’

Today as Catalyst-Chicago is reporting new data about ongoing staff turnover at schools that have been reconstituted by AUSL, the conclusion of the Designs for Change report seems especially prophetic: “Given the meager academic progress of Elementary Turnaround Schools and their high teacher turnover rate, which undermines the basic culture of the school, the researchers conclude that the resources devoted to Turnaround Schools can be better spent by supporting the alternative research-based strategies.”

One of the essays in a Harvard-published collection edited by Thomas Timar, Narrowing the Achievement Gap (2012) speaks to the challenges in Chicago and other communities where schools struggle in neighborhoods with intensely concentrated poverty.  In “Reframing the Ecology of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps: Why ‘No Excuses’ Reforms Have Failed to Narrow Student Group Differences in Educational Outcomes,” the researchers Robert Ream, Sarah Ryan, and Jose Espinoza remind us:

“The plain fact is that the gaps between minority or poor students and otherwise socially enfranchised children is already at roughly a year with regard to educational outcomes for math and reading by the time children enter kindergarten.  These differences at the group level remain fairly constant between the first and the twelfth grades, so it is safe to say that it is not generally the schools themselves that create or even foster the inequity.  Indeed, while children are in school, the gap typically narrows, but when they’re outside the classroom, it widens.  In short, there is no getting around that fact that children are beings embedded in social networks, nested in families, navigating relatively complex social lives with peers, and functioning as members of neighborhoods and communities in which school is one important social institution among many shaping their reality.” (pp. 39-40)