Charter Grants from Arne Duncan Destabilize Under-Resourced Public Districts

There is growing evidence that we have a big problem with public money flowing to poorly regulated charter schools—schools that do a poor job of educating students and that find all sorts of ways to rip off the public and suck in tax dollars that are desperately needed by the public school districts in which they are located. But there is a bigger problem.  In school districts that are not growing demographically—the big cities where charters are expanding—the rapid growth of new charters is destabilizing the public schools.  Research continues to demonstrate that charter schools attract parents who are active choosers and children who do not present really expensive education challenges.  Charters are known to serve fewer English language learners and fewer students whose special education needs are complex—fewer autistic, blind, deaf, and multiply-handicapped children, and fewer homeless children and those who are living below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.  Traditional public school districts are being turned into school districts of last resort as they are expected to serve the children left behind by school choice while money is divided with more and more charter schools.

At the end of September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded over $157 million to seven states, the District of Columbia, and eleven charter school projects across the country for the expansion of charter schools.  The outrageous granting of $71 million to Ohio even as the state was locked in a political battle about establishing even the most minimal oversight of charter schools has been questioned in the press. But what about the other grants?

This week Linda Lutton, the education reporter at WBEZ Chicago, questions the five-year charter grant of $8,412,500 to the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.  She describes the astute reaction of Jesse Sharkey, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union: “Our neighborhood schools have a hard time just delivering a basic education program.  But at the same time there’s federal dollars and private dollars mixing together to privatize schools… It’s like we’re going on a privatization bender in our schools.  And we’re gonna wake up in the gutter and discover that we have sold off the asset of our public education system, and our schools are being run by private operators that don’t have our values.”

Michael Masch, the former school finance chief of the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offered a very similar analysis recently to the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The reporter describes Masch’s worry about the the consequences for the public school district when charters are quickly expanded: “Masch expressed concern that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new (charter) school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools. At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.’ Masch also said that because charters get guaranteed funding based on the number of students they will enroll, their budgets stayed relatively stable while the district made deep cuts in response to a shortage of state education dollars.  As a result, construction of new district school buildings has ground to a halt. ‘Whether it’s a plan or a strategy or an unintended consequence, the reality is that you have brand-new buildings for charters while district schools are falling apart.  You’re starving one system to fund another.’”

Precisely how does the expansion of charters threaten the public schools in cities where charter networks are rapidly growing?  Lutton describes Chicago, where a district phase-out process leads to the closure of public schools: “Several Chicago high schools this year have freshman classes of just 20, 25, or 30 kids—that’s the entire freshman class.  There are more than two dozen district-run high schools—including neighborhood high schools Fenger, Harper, Hirsch, Manley, Richards, Robeson, and Tilden—with fewer than 400 students total.  A half dozen high schools have fewer than 200 students.  The under-enrollment problems have ballooned as the city has continued to open new high schools—part of its school improvement efforts—even though high school enrollment has been essentially flat.  Since 2004, the population of high school students has grown less than 2 percent, while the number of high schools has grown 58 percent—and that’s not including dozens of alternative schools the city has added.”

Community members and parents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood mounted a 103 day hunger strike late this summer to preserve a neighborhood public high school at Dyett, a school that would be open to any student in the neighborhood.  After Noble Network Charters received the recent grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Patrick Brosnan, executive director in Chicago’s Brighten Park Neighborhood Council discussed with Lutton what he believes is happening in Chicago’s neighborhoods when charter networks expand: “Brosnan’s group has opposed the new Noble campus proposed for 47th and California for fear it will mean fewer students and thus less funding at nearby Kelly High School, which has seen its population cut by one-third and its budget slashed by $4 million in recent years, as five new schools have opened nearby. ‘It’s basically up for grabs.  They get to make these decisions and make these plans, and there’s really no public discussion about this… I mean, there would be a tremendous impact on existing schools.'”

Michael Milkie, the founder of Noble Network of Charters, has a very different point of view: “This grant can really help us start on that next phase… 20, 30, 40 high schools…. I foresee a day where—I hope—where a majority of the students are educated in either Noble campuses or campuses like that at the high school level.”

What’s going on here?  Over a year ago, Robin Lake, the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, creator of the “portfolio school reform model”—that actively supports school choice and whose strategy projects delivering a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods and encouraging city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit to see how all this is working.  Last winter, Lake published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Just perhaps, depending on how the politics play out, there is hope for some containment in Chicago.  Lutton reports: “Chicago’s Board of Education will still have to approve the eight new schools Noble wants to open.  And the hurdles to that have never been higher.  The district is in a financial crisis.  Forty-two aldermen have called for a freeze on charter schools… But the network has the mayor and the governor on its side, along with tens of millions of dollars in projected philanthropic donations.”

One would wish that the U.S. Department of Education, which is making these multi-million dollar grants for charter school expansion, would do something about regulating the schools being launched with federal money.  Last spring the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools until the federal government establishes some regulation.  The Alliance noted a 2012 report from the Department’s own Office of Inspector General that documented the need for far more federal oversight.

During the Senate debate in July on the reauthorization of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced an amendment to provide some oversight of federal investment in the expansion of at least the for-profit charter schools.  Brown declared: “There’s no sector that misspends tax dollars more than these for-profit charter schools.”  “I’m curious that the people that complain about waste, fraud and abuse in government are now standing up to defend these for-profit charters.”

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When Choosing Schools, Parents Often Pick Close-to-Home Over Test Scores

School choice is framed on the idea that if our society provides parents with enough choices, they will select the schools said to be excellent and their choices will drive up the academic quality of all schools because schools will compete to achieve excellence in order to be chosen by consumers.  The mark of excellence for which parents are assumed to compete these days is the school’s rating as defined by standardized test scores.

Last fall, however, some of the most prominent proponents of school choice as the driver of school quality began to express some skepticism.  Maybe marketplace school choice that has been so rapidly expanded across America’s big cities isn’t working the way it was supposed to.

First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Then in mid-December Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Now in January we have two new academic reports that suggest one primary reason why school choice does not seem to be driving up school quality as measured by standardized test scores. Parents are more discerning than anyone expected, and they are looking at other factors besides a school’s test score ranking when they choose a school for their children.  (One can, of course, explore a whole range of other possible reasons why competition doesn’t work—including whether schools can control the factors that drive test scores and whether uneven financial support for schools limits any real capacity for competition.)

In a major new study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that when Chicago closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, children were assigned to a “welcoming” school, but families could make another choice if they wished.  Of the families who opted out of their assigned “welcoming” school, some parents chose schools with higher test scores, but many chose lower rated schools.  Why?  “Overwhelmingly, families that enrolled in lower-rated CPS schools did so because of proximity to home… Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.” “Access to transportation and the cost of transportation to and from welcoming schools was prohibitive for many of the families.”

The Chicago researchers list several other factors that influenced parents as well: “Some parents relied on their social networks for information…. A few families had prior experiences with school staff or students and either strongly considered or ruled out schools based on these prior experiences… Simply knowing about a school through a personal or family connection often put that school into consideration… Some children needed very specific kinds of supports or programs that were not offered at every school…. Families with multiple children had more complicated choice sets because these families often prioritized keeping their children together…. Some parents wanted their children to move to a more racially diverse school because they wanted their children to be exposed to multiple cultures.  Others ruled out some schools if they believed their child would be in the racial minority… Parents not only wanted their children to have a safe commute to and from school, but they also wanted them to feel safe while at school.”

The Chicago researchers conclude: “Academic quality for these families meant anything from schools having after-school programs, to having certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, and one-on-one attention from teachers in classes.  In addition, several parents stressed the importance of enrolling their children into schools that were not overcrowded… Many of these same parents expressed concern over larger class sizes at the welcoming schools and wondered whether their children would be able to get what they needed from their teachers.”

In another study released this month, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University examine the reasons parents choose schools in New Orleans, a district where school choice among charter schools has become almost universal because the school district has undergone massive charterization since the hurricane in the fall of 2005.   The school’s published academic rating is one of the factors parents consider but not the only factor: “Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels  Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have ‘legacy’ names that were used pre-Katrina.  For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important… For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important.” Factors that discouraged families from applying to particular schools include longer driving distances and a longer school year.

What these reports document is that parents are considering the needs of their children through the lens of a far more complex set of factors than mere test score rankings.  Parents are valuing and carefully considering a range of factors that will affect their family life and the needs of their children. One must wonder, considering that distance from home and transportation problems seem to be the biggest issues for parents in Chicago and New Orleans, whether our society needs to take another look at the importance of investing in and improving the neighborhood public schools that parents seem to value.

The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes a blog on that institution’s website about issues of the day.  His prophetic post this week considers Democracy Under Attack in urban public education: “In 1785, John Adams wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside one section of each township for a school.  Most of us grew up never calling into question these foundational principles of our American republic.  Today, these notions seem to be turned on their heads.  The whole people is barred from meaningful engagement in the education of the whole people, and the responsibility to bear the expense is increasingly scorned by those who view public dollars as a piggy bank for their private ventures.”

Thomas’ blog post couldn’t be more timely.  Just two days ago New York’s Alliance for Quality Education and several partner organizations released a report, Good for Kids or Good for Carl?, that begs for public scrutiny of the likely conflict of interest involving Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 2010, and who subsequently has joined Buffalo’s board of education.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, Paladino is making lots of money from the charter schools that benefit from his votes on the board of education. When questioned about this matter by the Buffalo News, Paladino defended his right to make a profit: “If I didn’t, I’d be a frigging idiot.”

The Alliance for Quality Education explains: “Carl Paladino is the chairman of Ellicott Development, one of the largest property developers focused on the Buffalo area.  Paladino’s companies are the leading charter school developers in Buffalo.  Ellicott Development has worked with the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools, either flipping property to the private operators of those schools or financing school construction through pricey ‘leaseback deals’…  As the preferred real estate developer for Buffalo’s charter schools, Paladino is well-positioned to secure more business for himself as a result of using his position on the school board to bring more privately run charter schools to Buffalo.”

The report accuses Paladino not only of profiting from his dual role as school board member and real estate developer but also of failing to honor his own promise to recuse himself from school board votes about the charter schools connected to his business.  “He has a conflict of interest.  Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board.  He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.”

In his new blog post, the Rev. Thomas writes: “In city after city the story is the same. Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governor’s offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in.”

Profits siphoned from tax dollars are a big part of this problem.  The story of Carl Paladino’s real estate ventures in Buffalo is only the latest in a long series of tales of business tycoons making money from the tax dollars flowing into poorly regulated charter schools.  Earlier this week this blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools in North Carolina and the national charter management organization, Imagine Schools, that operates in 11 states and conducts a real estate profit scheme through SchoolHouse Finance, its own real estate subsidiary.  Then there is the enormous charter mess in Detroit that was exposed in a week-long investigation last summer by the Detroit Free Press.  And in Ohio, David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—who has made over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services for ECOT—have been very openly purchasing public policy.

But graft, corruption, and influence peddling are only part of what the Rev. Thomas is describing.  His greater concern is the threat to urban public education as a democratic institution.  Rev. Thomas describes Philadelphia, where an appointed School Reform Commission recently abrogated the legal contract the School District of Philadelphia had established with its teachers union. “Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases available to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault.”  He writes about New York City where Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter School diva, has been able to turn “her wealthy friends loose on the governor and legislature” to ensure that New York City redirects public funds to pay for rent in the private market for her schools if there is no empty space that can be found to co-locate her schools into public school buildings themselves.  And he describes Chicago, where he has been watching as political maneuvering blocked “a non-binding referendum that would have provided the citizens of the city an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether Chicago should return to an elected school board.”  There are other examples.  There is Newark, New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them,”  and where his appointed superintendent has imposed a massive choice plan on the school district while quashing public protests including the outcry of the mayor. There is New Orleans where the schools were seized by the state and charterized after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and there is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has imposed state-appointed emergency managers with the power to abrogate union contracts, turn over school districts to charter management organizations, and even shut down whole school districts experiencing financial problems.

“We have always imagined our schools to be the formative institutions of our democracy,” writes the Rev. Thomas. “What happens to all of us when that is no longer the case?”  I urge you to read Rev.Thomas’ fine column.

When Districts Create Selective High Schools, Students Segregate by Ability. Duh?

The Hechinger Report and WBEZ Chicago just published a welcome expose by reporter Linda Lutton that confirms the obvious.  When you have school choice and when some high schools are competitive based on standardized test scores, you’ll end up with a system that sorts students by their ability as measured by test scores.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—and the father of the school-choice-driven theory of Portfolio School Reform—is quoted in Lutton’s new report as being shocked.  He says segregation by ability is an unintended consequence of his theory: “It certainly wasn’t a goal.”

And Barbara Byrd-Bennet, Chicago’s school superintendent who leads the school district whose top students are actively sorting into elite high schools, says she doesn’t believe in sorting by ability: “There’s no research to support sorting.”  Lutton explains that Byrd-Bennett, “says she, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board  ‘come from a very different belief system,’ one that opposes sorting students by achievement level.  ‘What we believe is that you’ve got to elevate, raise the level and the quality of instruction at all of our schools, including our neighborhood schools,’ said Byrd-Bennett.”  But at Marshall Metropolitan High School, whose attendance zone includes much of Chicago’s West Side, 86 percent of the students score below the district average.

According to Lutton’s report, 104 students had perfect scores on the district’s standardized EXPLORE exam, and 96 percent of these students attend Northside, Whitney Young, Payton, Lane, Lincoln Park and Jones high schools—all competitive-entry schools that accept students based on their academic records.  “Among the city’s top 2 percent of test takers (those scoring a 23, 24, or 25 on their exam) 87 percent are at those same six schools.”  By contrast, “Fifteen percent of the city’s high schools are populated with vastly disproportionate numbers of low-performing students.  More than 80 percent of incoming students at these schools score below the district average.”

There are, of course, racial implications: “Black students are most likely to be affected by sorting… African American students are doubly segregated, first by race, then by achievement… Chicago has black high schools for low achievers, black high schools for average kids, black test-in high schools for high achievers.”

Lutton describes research showing that New Orleans and New York City—both school districts that have become “portfolio”-choice school districts in the past decade—have also become increasingly segregated by students’ academic ability as measured by test scores.  She concludes: “Researchers say ‘achievement’ may be an indication of the resources students have at home.  Higher performing students’ families are better at getting information about school quality, navigating the system, and securing things like transportation to school or test prep for entrance exams.”

While Paul Hill and Barbara Byrd-Bennett may profess shock and dismay about this “unintended” sorting by academic prowess, school staff and students are not nearly so gullible.  A counselor at an elementary school, “said her elementary school sends ‘average’ students to a nearby high school that’s seen as safe, that admits no low performers, and scores at about the district average.  But she said she would not recommend the school for her top students….”   And a high school freshman tells Lutton:  “If you get straight As and you do really good on testing, the school you’ll probably get accepted into is Northside, Walter Payton, Whitney Young.”

Lutton describes one Chicago high school that remains relatively diverse because it hosts a long-standing International Baccalaureate program, a well known arts program and an attendance zone that is at least somewhat diverse.  This high school continues to make intentional efforts to mix students by ability for at least some classes.  A teacher there reports: “I feel like my lower performing students rose to the challenge.  They had great examples from their peers around them at all times.  And at the same time for some of my higher performing students, it was good for them to work with someone generally not at their level.”

Truth Telling by Chicago Educators

Chicago provided the model for school “reform” as we now experience it in America.  A decade ago Arne Duncan, then C.E.O. of the Chicago Public Schools, launched Renaissance 2010, whose purpose was to expand school choice by opening 100 new schools by 2010, many of them charter schools, and closing so-called “failing” public schools.  New Schools for Chicago, a supporter of Ren10, as it was called, provides this puff-piece history: “In June 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley, then Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Arne Duncan, and leaders from the Chicago business community announced Renaissance 2010 (Ren10).  The goal of this bold initiative was to open 100 new schools and provide all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, with the opportunity to compete on the global playing field.  The Renaissance Schools Fund (RSF) was established by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club as the fundraising and strategic partner to the Renaissance 2010 effort.”

When Barack Obama became President of the United States in the fall of 2008, he brought Arne Duncan with him to Washington, D.C. as the Secretary of Education, and along came Ren10 as the school “reform” template that would be rolled-out nationwide in programs like Race to the Top and the school “turnaround” models in School Improvement Grants.

In Chicago, Ren10 was launched in June of 2004—ten years ago.  So how’s it going back where it all began?  Not so well — according to new reports and commentaries by those charged with educating Chicago’s children.

Yesterday, May 22, on the first anniversary of Chicago’s vote “to close 50, ‘turn around’ five, and co-locate 17 elementary schools” the Chicago Teachers Union released a report, Twelve Months Later: The Impact of School Closings in Chicago.  The report was produced by the Chicago Teachers Union Research Department which conducted interviews with “teachers from seven of the receiving schools, Chopin, Courtenay, Dett, Earle, Nicholson, Otis, and South Shore Fine Arts — to gather information about the fulfillment of CPS promises.  Additionally, researchers reviewed CPS material on the school closures, operating and capital budget documents, position files, vacancy reports, class size data, and other public data.”  Chicago’s mass closure of 50 schools in one year was the largest closure of schools and reassignment of students ever to take place in the United States.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) reports that although the school closures were promised to save money that could then be directed to support the needs of children in receiving schools, neither have such economies been realized nor the investments in student support been accomplished.  Many teaching positions at receiving schools remain unstaffed, with especially serious consequences in schools that received a significant influx of students needing special education.  “The duration of the special education vacancies were longer than for all teacher types, and were also substantially longer at receiving schools than others.”  At Brenneman Elementary School the number of special education students doubled, raising the ratio of social workers to students to an unmanageable level—from 125:1 a year ago to 180:1 today.   CTU concludes: “Instead of going directly to receiving schools, a large portion of the transition budgets allocated through central office went to management costs, such as logistics, human resources, building monitoring, and safe passage programs implemented to address safety concerns.”  A contractor hired to manage moving logistics won the job in April of 2013 with a bid of $14,200,000.00.  By December of 2013, the actual cost to the district had jumped to $30,900,000.00.

Also promised were enrichments at the receiving schools such as science labs, new libraries, computer labs and i-pads for the students.  However, “Courtenay is currently without a science teacher and the science lab at Dett is being used as a fourth grade classroom…  Even at the receiving schools with brand new libraries — Leland, McCutcheon, Harvard, and Bass — only Leland has a librarian on staff.  Libraries without librarians are used for other purposes.  For example, teachers reported them used for special education classes at Chopin and recess rooms at Earle.  Computer labs at receiving schools were upgraded; however, only one fifth of these schools has a technology teacher on staff this year…  At Drake, $100,000.00 worth of iPads were stolen over the weekend preceding the first day of school.  None of the teachers interviewed have seen technology working smoothly in their buildings.”

While the rationale presented for massive school closure was under-utilization of the schools that were closed, CTU reports that much of the space lost in closed buildings had been used for enrichments and community services. Of the schools closed, 90 percent were majority black;  71 percent of closed schools had a majority black teaching staff.  “Just 2% of schools with a minority Black student population were closed.” “25% of all CPS schools with both majority Black students and staff were closed.”   One result of closing schools to address supposed under-utilization has become overcrowding at receiving schools.  Today, to address overcrowding, “More charter schools are opening, despite evidence that their students perform no better than students at CPS-run schools.  More money is being spent for selective enrollment schools, attended disproportionately by White students.  Adequate supports for schools facing challenging circumstances are not forthcoming.”

In concert with the release of CTU’s scathing report have been stunning letters and op-eds published this month in Chicago by school principals who declare they can no longer remain silent.  In a  letter published May 9 in the Chicago Sun-Times, Troy La Raviere, principal at Blaine Elementary School, one of the city’s highest performing schools (as measured by standardized test scores), declared, “Since 2011, CPS principals and teachers have experienced unprecedented political burdens.  Early on, teachers felt publicly maligned and disrespected by the mayor, leading to the historic strike of 2012.  While publicly praising principals in speeches and with awards, behind the scenes this administration has disregarded principals’ knowledge and experience.  They have ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall’s political agenda for Chicago’s schools.”  “‘You are Board employees,’ a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, ‘and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board’s agenda.’ He instructed us to have an ‘elevator speech…'”   “The world’s highest-performing school systems are built on the ideas of American education professionals ranging from John Dewey to Linda Dalrling-Hammond, ideas that recognize school improvement is not an individual race, but a team sport.  Yet, our own elected officials have been ignoring those ideas in favor of teacher-bashing, privatized choice, fly-by-night fast-track teacher licensing and over-reliance on testing—ideas that have not improved schooling in any nation that has tried them.”

In a column published by Catalyst-Chicago on May 12, Adam Parrot-Sheffer, principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School, wrote:  “…the lack of principal and teacher voice in this dialogue—which my heroic colleague Troy LaRaviere has written about in a Chicago Sun-Times op ed—has turned  promising ideas into harmful practice.  When this is coupled with implementation so poor it borders on malpractice, it is time for significant changes in our approach… Unfortunately, when systems stop considering the humanity of those working within them, employees with power in turn begin to disregard those working with them within the system.  I have lost count of the number of times I have watched my colleagues and myself be disrespected in meetings or emails.  I have sat through lengthy budget rollout meetings where principals were spoken to with empty platitudes about how they are the ‘levers of change’….  When administrators have raised their concerns in these meetings, such as what to do when we see lunchroom employees in tears from being overworked as the district cut school positions by 33% to 50%, there is no response… We are in the business of developing people, but these days, there is a lack of development and support for those doing that work.”

Portfolio School Reform: What Does It Mean in Chicago? Newark? New York City?

Controversy about charter schools has heated up this spring in New York City, over whether charter schools should be co-located into buildings shared by traditional public schools and whether charter schools ought to be charged rent; in Newark, over Governor Chris Christie and state appointed caretaker superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark Plan that would close traditional schools and fire teachers; and in Chicago, where traditional public schools continue to be closed because they are, supposedly, under-enrolled but at the same time new charters are permitted by the school district to open right down the block.

What’s happening in these and other cities raises questions about the theory of “portfolio school reform” that is driving school district policy in many cities these days. NYC and Chicago count themselves among the over 40 districts in what the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington calls its Portfolio School District Network; Newark is implementing the strategy as well.

Portfolio School Reform is the idea developed and promoted by the Center, which posts on its website a map of over 40 school districts that have formally adopted this strategy. When you cut through the rhetoric,”portfolio school reform” means that the district is managed like a business portfolio—sloughing off the schools whose scores are low and opening new, and it is to be hoped, more successful schools—all in a perpetual cycle.  Stability is not a virtue sought in “portfolio school reform” strategy.

If you dig a little deeper into the website, you will find that the Center’s current funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Walton Family Foundation.  These are all reliable supporters of privatization and school choice.

The Center proclaims, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child….  And it relies on district leadership to support and expand successful schools until every child in the district is in a great school.”  Notice that while this definition features the concepts of freedom and choice, it doesn’t really explain how this is to be accomplished—through closing public schools and opening privatized alternatives. Nor does the definition wrestle with the question about whether all children can be provided a great school through a system of school choice driven by standardized test scores. After all the portfolio strategy is a competitive strategy and all competitions have losers as well as winners.  Because test scores reflect family wealth more than any other variable, what this usually means in practice is that children in the big city neighborhoods with the most concentrated poverty will find themselves in the schools being closed.

Some of the most penetrating analysis of today’s “portfolio school reform” theory may be found in a book written by Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine and published by Teachers College Press in 2012: Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education.  Fabricant and Fine write: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas.  This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of public education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities…. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention…  Ultimately charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (p. 87)

Two articles this week update concerns about portfolio school reform:

In Chicago: Dan Mihalopoulos who has been investigating the implications of “portfolio school reform” in Chicago for the Sun Times collaborates with Darnell Little, editor of the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University in a Sun Times front page report, A Push for Charter Schools, But Little Difference in Test Scores. Despite that “Chicago has ordered the closings of dozens of neighborhood public schools while approving a new wave of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, in a much-touted effort to improve education,”  Mihalopoulos and Little report data to confirm that students in traditional public schools are scoring comparably to, or sometimes outscoring, their charter school counterparts on standardized tests. The Sun Times investigation quotes Terry Mazany, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Community Trust, formerly interim CEO of the Chicago schools, and longtime supporter of portfolio school reform, who expresses concern about the new  data: “The growth of charter schools is based on the hypothesis that choice drives improvement. What we’ve seen from your analysis is that choice is not sufficient…. It’s not a silver bullet.”

In Newark: Bob Braun, 50-year reporter for The Star-Ledger, posts a new investigation on his blog of the operation of Cami Anderson’s school administration and those working with her to implement the “portfolio,” One Newark Plan by which she has said she will close a mass of schools and fire one third of Newark’s teachers.  In the context of this upheaval and purported cost-cutting, Braun examines enormous raises recently granted to administrators who are charged with implementing One Newark. “A third of Newark’s public school teachers face layoffs.  The contracts of seven employee unions, including nurses, cafeteria workers, and laborers, have expired and the administration of state (appointed) superintendent Cami Anderson refuses to settle.  Counselors were laid off.  Public schools have been stripped of assets and allowed to crumble.  Cami drove the district into a $40 million budget hole but, despite all that, she has given hefty raises to the district’s top administrators…. The sizable ‘leadership’ team raises began in the summer of 2012 and continued until a few weeks ago… Of the 18 highest paid administrators in Newark, 12 have ties with Cami through the various organizations she served—New York City schools (under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein), Teach for America, New Leaders, or charter schools.  The nine who make $175,000 or more draw as high a salary as the governor himself, sometimes higher  The Newark school administration is to Cami Anderson what the Port Authority was to Chris Christie before Bridgegate–a publicly funded home for cronies.”

In New York City:  A recent post summarizes this blog’s extensive coverage of the ongoing conflict—about portfolio reform and protection of charter schools—between Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Fabricant and Fine conclude their excellent book, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, with this observation: “Entering the contested terrain of public education is an essential act of citizenship precisely because it demonstrates our commitment to preserving a racially and economically just public sphere and larger democracy.  Either we are prepared to struggle for a future built on a rock-solid foundation of a well-funded education system available for all children, or we all suffer in the quicksand of shifting resources from a starved public education system to privatized alternatives.” (p. 130)

Chicago’s UNO Charter Scandal Tarnishes Luster of Arne Duncan’s Hands Off Strategy

A dozen years ago, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the former superintendent of the Houston Public Schools, brought us all the test-and-punish “Texas miracle” in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act.  We all know what happened to that so-called miracle.

Now several years into Arne Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education, we continue to learn more about the “Chicago miracle” brought to us by Duncan, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, and the man who has infused into federal education policy the “miracles” of innovation and freedom from too much red tape.  These were the signatures of the school reform he presided over in Chicago in the form of Renaissance 2010, a decade-long program that closed public schools and launched a vibrant charter sector.

We can now watch the results quietly playing out in the U.S. Department of Education. According to Education Week writer, Alyson Klein, for example, yesterday San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation were designated as “Promise Zones.” Klein notes that future funding for this program is unsure: “The roughly $60 million Promise Neighborhood program was initially pretty popular in Congress.  But it has faced pushback, as lawmakers have questioned whether it makes sense to dole out a bunch of planning grants to finance programs that may or may not come to fruition.  So far, most communities that have gotten ‘planning grants’ haven’t made it to the implementation stage.”  There are similar questions about the effectiveness of the Race to the Top grants and the School Improvement Grants program, which is currently undergoing a formal re-evaluation.

Questions about the local impact of Duncan’s programs in Chicago have exploded into an enormous scandal around Chicago’s best-known and fastest growing local charter chain, the UNO (United Neighborhood Association) Charter Schools.  This week, Chicago Magazine published The Rise and Fall of Juan Rangel, the Patron of Chicago’s UNO Charter Schools, an extraordinary investigation of one of the biggest and supposedly most successful charter empires nurtured throughout Duncan’s tenure as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

Reporter Cassie Walker Burke with a team from the Better Government Association spent months investigating the crisis in the United Neighborhood Organization and its charters: “A torrent of bad publicity about insider contracts, nepotistic hires, and political cronyism at UNO.  Millions in grant money yanked from the organization and its network of 16 charter schools.  A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into one of the bond deals that helped drive UNO’s rapid expansion.  And, of course, Rangel’s December departure from the juggernaut he had built…”

UNO began opening charter schools in 1997, benefiting from the array of funding streams available in Chicago to entrepreneurs who wanted to enter the charter sector.  According to Chicago Magazine, UNO charter schools have received $280 million in public money in the past five years. “CPS, like many authorizing districts around the country, gives charter operators a guaranteed base allotment per student—in Chicago, that amount currently ranges from $4,140 to $5,130.  On top of that, charters get additional public funds for facility rent and maintenance and even more if they teach large numbers of kids who are poor or are learning English (as UNO schools do).  And that’s not all: there is a blend of local, state, and federal monies dedicated for lunch programs, special education, teacher training, and a long menu of services.  Charters also attract serious dough from certain foundations.  The Dell Foundation has given UNO at least $1.5 million, and the Walton Family Foundation has forked over more than $3 million.”

In 2009, the Illinois legislature awarded UNO a $98 million grant to build more schools, but the grant’s requirements specified that UNO “must immediately notify the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that administered the grant in writing of any actual or potential conflicts of interest.”

Beginning in February of 2013, the Chicago Sun Times exposed, “a long line of contractors, plumbers, electricians, security firms, and consultants tied to many of the VIPs on UNO’s organizational chart….  Rangel spelled out in tax documents and in later bond disclosures that the construction firm d’Escoto Inc.—owned by former UNO board member Federico d’Escoto, the brother of Miguel d’Escoto—was the owner’s representative on three projects funded by the grant… The vendor lists were peppered with other familiar names: a $101,000 plumbing contract awarded to the sister of Victor Reyes, UNO’s lobbyist, who helped secure the state grant; a $1.7 million electrical contract given to a firm co-owned by one of Ed Burke’s precinct captains; tens of thousands in security contracts to Citywide Security, a firm that had given money to Danny Solis, and to Aguilla Security, managed by the brother of Rep. Edward Acevedo, who voted for the $98 million for UNO.”  The list of conflicts of interest continues page after page.

Today UNO’s schools serve 7,500 students.  While UNO’s programming may be innovative and the facilities gorgeous, the students’ future is also connected to the shady business practices that threaten the ongoing operation of their schools.

According to Cassie Walker Burke: “UNO and its CEO thrived mainly because of gaping loopholes in the charter school system.  While UNO has received a staggering $280 million in public money over the past five years to spend on education, neither Chicago Public Schools nor the Illinois State Board of Education provided enough oversight.  Without that, insiders say, UNO developed a free-wheeling culture that was ripe for abuse.”

“Creative Disruption” Destroys Public Education in Chicago’s Bronzeville

Portfolio school reform is the theory that underpins much of what is happening across the school districts in America’s biggest cities.  It is the idea that a school district should be managed like a business portfolio, shedding the failed investments and resourcing the smart investments.  It is a program of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and it is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  One of its primary features is the practice of closing schools.

Trymaine Lee, who has been covering school reform in Chicago for MSNBC, reflects in this powerful article on the impact of the rash of school closures in recent years on the children and adolescents in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.  “After Parrish Brown graduates from Walter Dyett High School this spring, it’s likely he’ll never set foot in that school building again. Not for a 10-year reunion or to catch up with former teachers or to admire the gleaming trophies inside the school’s display case.  Because if all goes according to the city’s plan, there soon will be no Walter Dyett High School to return to in Bronzeville, an historic African-American enclave on the city’s south side.  ‘They closed my elementary school and now they’re phasing out my high school. One day there’ll be nothing in my community to come back to,’ said Brown, 17.”

Describing Chicago, Lee reports, “Since 2001 the district has shuttered or phased-out about 150 schools, including 49 over this past summer. It was the largest single mass school closing in American history and affected more than 30,000 students who were either displaced or whose schools absorbed the massive spillover.”  According to Lee, 88 percent of the students affected by the Chicago closings are African-American, with 94 percent from low-income families.  Public school closures in Chicago have clustered on the city’s south and west sides, with far fewer schools closed in the white neighborhoods on the north side.

While Chicago’s public school closures have been described by district officials as part of a cost-cutting measure, the school district has continued to encourage the start-up of new charter schools.  According to Lee, “Just last week, CPS proposed the addition of 21 new charter schools.”  The theory behind portfolio school reform is that new, often privatized, schools will open to compete with the traditional neighborhood schools.  The strategy assumes that a school district will be improved through “creative disruption.”

Jitu Brown disagrees.  He is a community organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization that has been organizing parents and students to protest the closure of their public schools.  “This is not about school choice, says Jitu Brown. “If it was really about providing us with choices, we’d have the choice to improve our neighborhood schools. When you shut down neighborhood schools you’re not providing choices, it’s displacement by force.”

Darling-Hammond Deplores Failure of No Child Left Behind and Test-and-Punish

This morning, December 26, Linda Darling-Hammond spoke with Steve Inskseep on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.  You can listen or read the transcript here.

Darling-Hammond is the Stanford University professor who was considered seriously by President Barack Obama back in 2008 to be his Secretary of Education, although Obama eventually went with his Chicago buddy, Arne Duncan.

Here Darling-Hammond looks at the failure—evident after ten years—of President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that set the bar for test score passage so high that, without the waivers now being offered by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, all schools in the United States would be rated a failure in 2014, the deadline the 2002 law established as the time all children across the United States would be proficient.

According to Darling-Hammond, No Child Left Behind has neither improved school achievement nor closed achievement gaps: “basically the story for the United States over the last decade or more is flatline.”

Asks Darling-Hammond, “Will we move from a test-and-punish philosophy—which was the framework for No Child Left Behind — to an assess-and-improve philosophy?”  She concludes: “Well, you know, in general, our schools do better with the challenges they have to face, than I think is true of most high-achieving nations around the world. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty, mortality, lack of health care, homelessness of any developed country in the world at this point. And we have unequal funding, so that we give more money to the education of rich kids than poor kids. So our affluent districts in schools do quite well, and are still the envy of many in the world. Our low-income schools and districts are struggling with all these responsibilities and challenges and very little and inadequate public support. And yet, they perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet. Our system of schools is resilient, but we have to fix these problems.”

Income Inequality, Educational Inequity, Privatization…  Pittsburgh to Chicago

Two blog posts arrived in my in-box today.  The first is from a young woman, Jessie Ramey, whose blog is called Yinzercation and whose recent post is titled Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style.  This sent me, of course to Google and ultimately Wikipedia for a definition: “Yinzer is a 20th century term playing on the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania second-person plural vernacular “yinz.”  This post is about Diane Ravitch’s book launch for Reign of Error on last Monday night at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The event drew a thousand people and involved presentations by several school music groups.  Writes Ms. Ramey, ” Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together.”

The second blog post, The Myth of the Level Playing Field,  is from the Rev. John Thomas at Chicago Theological Seminary.  He too writes about public education, describing the scene as he rides his bike to work each morning down Stony Island Parkway, “past two schools within a quarter of a mile of each other.  On one stretch… sits the new Earl Shapiro Hall, a slick, multi-million dollar campus for the early childhood program of the University of Chicago Lab Schools.”  This is the school where President Obama sent his children when he lived in Chicago and where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel now sends his children.  According to Rev. Thomas, “Full day tuition for nursery through grade 5 at the Lab School is $25,300 a year.”

Rev. Thomas also rides his bike past Bret Harte Elementary School, a Chicago public math and science magnet school. Comparing the expenditure per pupil in the two schools, Rev. Thomas writes: “Per pupil spending in the Chicago Public Schools was about $12,000 per student in 2011 before this year’s round of large budget cuts.  While these numbers admittedly compare apples and oranges, the fruit is still rotten.”

Rev. Thomas examines updated research on income inequality recently released by University of California economist, Emmanuel Saez, research documenting that America’s growing inequality is unprecedented—with the top 1 percent controlling 95 percent of real income growth between 2009 and 2012.  “The children skipping to school on the sidewalks along Stony Island have not read Saez’s report,” writes Thomas. “They’re just living it.  The enormous imbalance of privilege will become more and more apparent to the children at Bret Harte while the children at the Lab School will move through lives often shielded from the tough south side neighborhoods where the pitiful scraps of America’s economy are tossed.”

The subject of Ravitch’s new book is the damage being done to public education by policies that encourage privatization and that punish rather than helping public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  Pittsburgh’s Jessie Ramey describes what she views as the kernel of Ravitch’s new book: “Our pubic schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way…. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization—competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies—undermine that shared obligation.”