School Choice Fails to Create Equity and Justice for Our Society’s Poorest Children

Early this week, in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss published an important reflection on Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education. Burris and Ravitch are responding to a major report from the Learning Policy Institute’s Peter Cookson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Patrick Shields, a report which endorses the idea of “portfolio school reform.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Tapestry of American Public Education, promotes a lovely metaphor, a tapestry of school options woven together—open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and specialty schools based on distinct educational models. The Learning Policy Institute declares: “The goal and challenge of school choice is to create a system in which all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible. The central lesson from decades of experience and research is that choice alone does not accomplish this goal.  Simply creating new options does not lead automatically to greater access, quality or equity.”  Here is how the Learning Policy Institute proposes that such fair and equal choice might be accomplished: “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures. Too often, questions related to the number of charters a district should have address school governance preferences, rather than the needs of children… Work to ensure equity and access for all. Expanding choice can increase opportunities, or it can complicate or restrict access to convenient and appropriate opportunities, most often for the neediest students… Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities, and resources to inform decision making for families, communities, and policymakers… Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations sound familiar. They are the same arguments made by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as it describes its theory of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform imagines an amicable, collaborative mix of many different schools: “A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. Portfolio systems place educators directly in charge of their schools, empower parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focus school system leaders—such as school authorizers or those in a district central office—on overseeing school success.”

Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

This rhetoric is all very nice. But the realities on the ground in the portfolio school districts I know fail to embody equity and justice.  I believe it is a pipe dream to promise a great school choice for every child in every neighborhood.  For one thing, there are the political and economic realities, beginning with the operation of power politics which is always part of the mayoral governance that is at the heart of this theory. There is also the unequal access parents have to information, and the unequal political, economic, and social position of parents.  And finally there is the devastating impact of the ongoing expansion of school choice on the traditional public schools in the school districts where charters are proliferating. CRPE calls its governance theory “portfolio school reform.” Many critics instead describe parasitic school reform.

Fortunately Burris and Ravitch promptly offered their critique of the new Learning Policy Institute report: “What concerns us… (is) the report’s insistence that school governance doesn’t matter. The authors deny the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools, the very schools they acknowledge the vast majority want. We know from experience that charter schools and vouchers drain finances and the students they want from the district public schools, causing budget cuts, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the schools that enroll the most children. Yet the report suggests that charter school caps should be removed, which is likely to further destabilize public schools… From the first recommendation of the report: ‘Debates that focus on questions such as how many charters a district should have are focused on adults and their preferences for school governance, rather than on the needs of children.’ This claim is wrong. School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students… Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”

Burris and Ravitch explain that research confirms the fiscal damage caused by charter school expansion. Here is some of that research:  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, the Rutgers University school finance professor Bruce Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “One might characterize this as a parasitic… model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Confirming Baker’s conclusions, in a May 2018, report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how, in California, charter school expansion has been undermining the fiscal capacity of several local school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer continues: “Indeed it is the district’s obligation to serve all children that makes it difficult to close schools in line with failing enrollment… School districts—unlike charter schools—are charged with enabling children to attend nearby neighborhood schools; this too is an obstacle to school closures.  Finally because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

We now also more fully understand that the damage of portfolio school reform reaches deeper into communities and neighborhoods than just the fiscal distress for public school districts. After 14 years, researchers have been able to investigate the meaning of portfolio school reform in Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 portfolio school reform in 2004.  At the end of the school year in May, 2013, fifty traditional neighborhood public schools were shed from the school district’s portfolio of schools—shut down because the District said they were “underutilized” after families experimented with school choice in an ever-growing number of charter schools. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research describes the devastation to neighborhoods and the community mourning that followed the school closures—80 percent in the poorest African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.  In her stunning new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explores the personal responses of children, teachers, and parents to the closure of their schools.

Bruce Baker reflects more theoretically in a brand new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, on our foolishness when we conflate of the expansion of school choice with educational justice: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another.  While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same.  Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker continues, confronting the argument implicit in school choice, that any school exists to satisfy the desires and the needs of the particular families and children doing the choosing: “The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the demands—preferred goods and services—of that community within the constraints of the law. Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Public schools promise access for all children to a stable network of schools—across poor neighborhoods just as public schools are are maintained as a stable network in wealthy communities.  Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who now leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, describes how school choice has undermined this promise in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities:  “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

The public schools are our mutual responsibility through public governance—paid for and operated by government on behalf of he public. We have a lot of work to do to realize this promise for all children.  Bruce Baker describes our responsibility: “More than anything else, our system of public schooling requires renewed emphasis on equitable, adequate, and economically sustainable public financing at a level that will provide all children equal opportunity to achieve the outcomes we, as a society, desire for them.” (p. 31)

No School Is “Doomed.” Continuous Improvement, Not School Closure, Must Be the Goal

I have read Eliza Shapiro’s reporting in POLITICO for years and I respect her as a reporter, but her story in Friday’s NY Times baffles me: New York Knew Some Schools In Its $773 Million Plan Were Doomed, They Kept Children in Them Anyway. The story raises a thousand questions and answers none of them. It fails to consider realities, which Shapiro surely knows, affect any child’s experience at school.

In Shapiro’s piece last Friday, we learn that the future of NYC’s Renewal Schools plan is in jeopardy.  And we learn that one of the interventions made in these, NYC’s lowest performing schools, as part of the Renewal Schools plan was their transformation into full-service, wraparound Community Schools. We are not told, however, what other interventions have been tried or how widely any intervention has been taken across the schools.  Over the weekend, in the blog of her organization, Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson explains that one improvement which would have been likely to support students was not tried.  Children were still assigned to classes of over 30 students. Shapiro tells us that the Renewal Schools program has cost $773 million but not how the money was spent.

Here is how Shapiro begins last week’s report on the failure of Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Chancellor Carmen Farina’s Renewal Schools program: “Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to ‘shake the foundations of New York City education’ in 2014 with a new program called Renewal, a signature effort to improve the city’s 94 poorest-performing schools by showering them with millions of dollars in social services and teacher training.  A year later, aides raised a confidential alarm: about a third of those schools were likely to fail. The schools were not meeting goals that the city set for higher test scores, increased graduation rates and other academic measures—and probably never would… ‘In order for these schools to reach their targets for 2017, the interventions would need to produce truly exceptional improvements,’ read the December 2015 memo, a copy of which was obtained by the New York Times. ‘Historically, it has been quite rare for schools to improve that much in two years.’  Mr. de Blasio kept most of the schools open.  Now, after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal.  Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”

The headline and the school district’s 2015 memo that Shapiro quotes describe the Renewal Schools program as “doomed” from the start because the district’s promise quickly to improve graduation rates and test score metrics would be unprecedented if achieved.  That kind of proclamation of an impossible, aspirational goal— “doomed from the start”—is surely also exemplified by No Child Left Behind’s promise to make all children in America proficient, as measured by standardized tests, by 2014.  And exemplified by the Race to the Top program, in which no school or school district raced to the top.

Here are presumably some of the realities faced by many of the students in New York City’s lowest-performing schools. Two weeks ago Shapiro herself reported that one out of ten students in the New York City Public Schools is homeless—114,659 students.  NYC is a segregated city, racially and economically, and Shapiro’s own reporting confirms that many homeless children are concentrated in particular schools: “District 10 in the Bronx served the most homeless children of any of the city’s 32 school districts last year. The district includes Kingsbridge International High School, where about 44 percent of students who attended school over the last four years were homeless.”  We know that homeless students drop out or delay graduation at higher rates than their more privileged peers and, in the aggregate, their test scores lag.

The NY Times‘, Elizabeth Harris reported last April: “The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well.  Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… “(H)omeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions, relatively flat when compared to the previous year.”

And of course, we know that homelessness represents only the most desperate marker of poverty and that many additional students in NYC’s public schools face economic challenges, which have been correlated for decades in the research literature with diminished standardized test scores and lower graduation rates.

My biggest fear as I read Shapiro’s story—which leaves a lot unanswered—is that school-reformers in the mold of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will push for the return to an earlier era.  Based on the philosophy of corporate, test-based accountability, Mayor Bloomberg brought so-called “portfolio school reform” to NYC. The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.” School closure is the ultimate fate of so-called “failing” schools in a portfolio framework.

Portfolio school reform theory—operating across a network of America’s big cities and resulting ultimately in school closure—contrasts with the idea of continuous improvement as the goal for any human institution. What concrete steps can we take to help a public school better serve its students and families? And how can we correct as we go along to ensure that we keep on doing better?

Mayor de Blasio and Carmen Farina tried a  strategy very different from Bloomberg’s portfolio plan.  One intervention Shapiro’s article acknowledges they tried was  expanding investment in wrap-around, full service Community Schools as a way to support the students as well as overwhelmed and overworked staff at New York City’s poorest schools. Perhaps leaders in the school district hoped this investment would “cure” these schools, but I don’t believe advocates for Community Schools have never claimed that locating medical, dental, mental health, social service, Head Start, after-school and summer programs at a school will immediately turn around test scores and graduation rates.  Community Schools are designed to support families and children and thereby ensure that the school’s students are able to be more engaged in the school’s academic program.  Here are the pillars of a full-service Community School: relevant rigorous and engaging curriculum; supports for quality teaching and collaborative leadership; appropriate wrap-around supports for every child; student-centered school climate; and transformative parent and community engagement. One Community School I visited several years ago in NYC is a model developed by the Children’s Aid Society. It is a school where the principal of the school works in partnership with the community school director to coordinate the work of a strong academic staff with a staff of social and medical service providers and to engage the parents and children in a wealth of wraparound supports and enrichments.

Here are some questions Shapiro’s article raises:

  • With the size of the NYC Public Schools (1.1 million students) and the scale of family poverty in NYC, what would it take adequately to support the principals and teachers in schools serving masses of children who struggle with poverty and homelessness? Why is our society unwilling to consider the scale of investment that would be necessary to make a dent in child poverty? Two weeks ago in her report on NYC’s alarming family homelessness, Shapiro explained that the city has invested million of dollars in new services for homeless students—to achieve, for example, a ratio of one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students and to provide school bus transportation for children who previously were trying to navigate bus and subway rides from a succession of shelters to their home school which may now be in a distant borough. But it clearly isn’t enough.  In her new report, Shapiro quotes Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson: “The Renewal school program wasn’t a silver bullet, but it sure made a big difference in the lives of kids and parents at improved schools that would have been closed by prior administrations. The mayor views the program as a foundation, not the endgame.”
  • Will policy makers in NYC eventually fall back on now-discredited interventions like school closure? Decades of research correlate metrics like test scores and graduation rates with family and neighborhood economic conditions and conclude that schools alone cannot be expected to overcome our society’s exploding inequality.  Lacking the dollars and sometimes the expertise for continuous improvement in a so-called “failing” school, Portfolio School Reformers are likely to prescribe school closure as a solution. But having watched Chicago’s experiment with school closure five years ago, we now know about the tragedy that is likely to follow school closure. Sociologists confirm that even struggling schools—the schools that are unable quickly to raise test scores—are important institutions anchoring neighborhoods and serving families in myriad unnamed ways. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published research earlier this year documenting widespread community mourning after the Chicago Public Schools’ closure of 50 schools in 2013.  And just last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago published Ghosts in the Schoolyard, a book tracing the impact of the 2013 Chicago school closures, with many of the closed institutions concentrated in the African American, Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing considers the technocratic point of view of Barbara Byrd Bennett, then Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, and contrasts Byrd Bennett’s reasoning with the voices of the children who were enrolled, their parents and their teachers who together explain the meaning of their schools. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about urban public schools.

In New York City, if the Renewal Schools plan is floundering, the school district’s leaders must seek to better serve the students. Surely nobody wants the city’s poorest schools to fail. One hopes, however, that the future will feature continuous improvement, not school closure.

Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explains the tragic mistake of test-based, portfolio school reform theory in his essential book, The Testing Charade. High stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face overwhelming challenges:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

We’ll Have to Do Something About Poverty to Improve School Achievement

In the New Yorker essay she just published on the Atlanta test-cheating scandal, Rachel Aviv quotes education researcher David Berliner: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  While research demonstrates a strong correlation between extreme family poverty and children’s struggles to achieve at school, many us living in middle and upper income communities struggle to discern how family poverty affects children and how the poverty of a neighborhood affects the public schools. We don’t spend much time in poor neighborhoods and we rarely go into a public school once our own children are grown. Today this blog will review some of the evidence, particularly about the impact of concentrated poverty, a phenomenon especially evident in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Memphis, Cleveland, and Gary.

Paul Jargowsky, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers, defines concentrated poverty as a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the people are poor.  In such neighborhoods, he writes, fewer than half the men are likely to be employed and fewer than half the children are likely to be living in a two-parent family.  This kind of poverty doubled between 1970 and 1990, writes Jargowsky, then diminished in the strong economy of the 1990s, and has risen quickly since 2000.

In his recent book, Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains whose lives are shaped by living in such circumstances: “Being raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites…  but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were…  This degree of racial inequality is not a remnant of the past….  If there is any difference between children in the previous generation and in the current one, the degree of neighborhood disadvantage experienced by African American children has worsened in the current generation…  Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” (pp. 27-29)

Cities where African American concentrated poverty is greatest, according to Jargowsky, are Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, Tallahassee, Dayton, Cleveland, Gary, Louisville, Buffalo, and Memphis.  Hispanic families also experience concentrated poverty, with the highest rates in Texas—Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville; in California—Fresno and Visalia; and in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and also in several cities in the East and Upper Midwest: Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; Milwaukee; and Hartford.

Another variable that makes an enormous difference for the children, according to Sharkey’s research, is embedded in the poverty data: “In essence, when white families live in a poor neighborhood, they typically do so for only a single generation; when they live in a rich neighborhood, they usually stay there for multiple generations.  The opposite is true for African American famlies: Neighborhood affluence is fleeting, and neighborhood poverty is most commonly multigenerational.” (p. 39, emphasis in the original)

Jargowsky contends that, “Concentration of poverty is the direct result of policy choices.  Political fragmentation means that hundreds of suburbs develop.”  “Suburbs grow much faster than is needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth.”  “By policy and tradition, we create a durable architecture of segregation that ensures the concentration of poverty.” In the long term, Jargowsky prescribes reversing the trajectory of suburbanization.

Is there a way to address today at least some of the issues for the children attending schools where segregation by economic level has become entrenched?  First, the demographic data demonstrate that today’s wave of  “portfolio school reform” that closes public schools and opens privately managed charter schools is not designed to address the primary issues in Philadelphia and Detroit and Cleveland; neither are voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. If we choose to support children living in the circumstances these researchers describe, it will be necessary to develop the political will to invest publicly in the schools in communities where poverty seems intractable.  We’ll need to provide incentives to attract the best teachers and support teachers instead of blaming them when they cannot overcome such issues on their own.  We’ll need to reduce class sizes.  We’ll need to provide the kind of wrap-around health and social services embedded in Community Schools.  We’ll need to create quality pre-Kindergarten programs to catch children up before the achievement gap gets established prior to their even beginning school. The federal government will need to increase investment in improving the public schools in our poorest communities and  find ways to create incentives to ensure that states also increase their investment in quality education for children living in poverty.

In short we’ll have to take David Berliner seriously: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  There is no excuse for the kind of punitive public education policy our nation is currently practicing.