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)