Portfolio School Governance Creates Unstable Charter Sector with Too Many School Closures

In an important brief from the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Kevin Welner define “portfolio school reform”—a school district governance theory which originated at the Center on Reinventing Public Education: “A key, unifying element is the call for many neighborhood schools to be transformed into privately managed charter schools… The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it.  As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization.”

Peter Greene recently suggested one of the inevitable implications of portfolio school reform: “(G)iven the portfolio emphasis on continually closing bottom-ranked schools, you can think of the portfolio model as trying to fire your way to excellence on the institutional scale.” It’s all about closing schools.

Chicago was an early example of portfolio school governance, which now dominates the school districts in a number of big cities. Because of a study last year by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and a book by University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing, we’ve finally begun paying attention to the resulting closure of too many traditional neighborhood schools.  In Chicago the researchers have described widespread community grieving for public schools that were once central in the lives of generations of families.

School closure is also characteristic of charter schools. A school district committed to shedding its poorest investments—its so-called “failing” schools—will be shutting down the low-performing or poorly managed charter schools as well.  The underlying assumption is that the parent-choosers buying into a market approach will just accept the notion of the closure of “failing” charters because it’s all part of the cycle of school improvement.

Parents of students in charter schools, however, are not calmly accepting the closure of their schools.  Why should they?  Like other parents, charter school parents are looking for stability when they choose a setting for their child’s education. Here are just three examples of churn and disruption as charters are shut down in districts and states dominated by the theory of portfolio governance.

Washington D.C. — At the end of January in the Washington Post, Perry Stein profiled a mother who, two years ago, enrolled a child in the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High.  Then last March the District of Columbia’s board that oversees charter schools, “voted to shutter the campus because of mismanaged finances.”  This school year, the mother enrolled her daughter in National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High: “Then, it happened again: The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted last week to shut down National Collegiate at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year because of low performance.”

Stein reports a maelstrom of charter school closures in the nation’s capital: “National Collegiate is one of three public charter schools the board in recent weeks voted to close because of poor performance. Democracy Prep Congress Heights and City Arts and Prep are expected to close at the end of this academic year, followed a year later by National Collegiate… One of the District’s oldest and most prominent charter networks—Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy—announced last week that it would close its middle school campus in Columbia Heights for financial reasons.  Its two high schools will merge on a single campus. The closures—which leave more than 1,500 students scrambling for seats in other schools—highlight the turmoil that befalls children when the lights are permanently turned off in their classrooms. Students are often forced to leave behind friends and teachers they have grown up with.  Parents are often stuck navigating the lottery that is used to place students—and they must do it when their children are in the middle of their academic career, when fewer slots are available.”

Detroit — Last November for ChalkbeatKoby Levin described the sudden closure of a Detroit charter high school.  In late September, only weeks into the 2018-19 school year, parents and students were told the school would shut down: “On Wednesday, Sept. 26, the charter school’s board held a meeting with a single item on the agenda: the closure of Delta Prep.  Parents, students, and teachers piled into the auditorium to demand that their school be spared, but their outpouring of tears and grief was not enough. Two days before the homecoming game, the board voted to shut the school down—effective immediately.”

The idea is that the marketplace will create an ever reinforcing spiral of school improvement.  But in Detroit, Levin depicts another reality: “A review of hundreds of pages of documents, and interviews with key leaders involved in the school since its creation, show that the forces arrayed against every school in Detroit had pushed Delta Prep’s chances of survival to nothing within a year if its opening, if not before…”  Delta Prep had recruited students who were left without a school when two other charters failed: “We guaranteed that if they came to Delta Prep, we’d correct the wrong of their school closing and keep them together,” comments one of the school’s original founders. “But within three years, not a single Delta Prep 11th-grader was deemed proficient in math….  Just 10 percent of 11th-graders posted passing scores in SAT English…. Delta Prep had promised that ‘100% of graduates will be accepted to college.’  But in 2016, the only year the state recorded graduation data for Delta Prep, just over half of the school’s graduates enrolled in college.  Just six students—10 percent of that first graduating class—went on to complete a year’s worth of college credits within a year of graduating.”

ArizonaArizona Republic reporter, Craig Harris describes an entire sector in precarious financial straits: “Following the abrupt closure of at least three Arizona charter schools over the past year, a new report concludes more than 100 of the state’s charters are in danger of closing because of excessive debt and other financial troubles.  It’s a ‘near certainty’ that more than 50 of the state’s 544 charter schools will close in the near future, according to the report by the Grand Canyon Institute… As a whole, Arizona’s 544 charter schools owe more to creditors than they’re worth as businesses contracted with the state to educate kindergarten to 12th-grade students. ‘Like any business, an overleveraged charter is financially vulnerable and could fail if it then suffers an income loss.’ the report states.”

In dry financial terms, the Grand Canyon Institute warns: “From FY 2014 – FY 2018, the long-term, lease-adjusted debt held by Arizona’s charter sector consistently exceeded the current depreciated value of its property and assets.  On the whole, the sector owes more than it is worth.  A business property or homeowner in this position is deemed to be underwater on their debt.  Like any business, an overleveraged charter is financially vulnerable and could fail if it then suffers an income loss. Ten percent of charter sites are in significant financial distress with closure a near certainty due to excessive debt and poor underlying financials. Another 10 percent are at risk of closure…  Increasingly, charter schools appear to be competing amongst themselves for students as the charter industry is consolidating.  From FY 2014 – FY 2017, 60 percent of growth in student enrollment, known as Average Daily Membership (ADM), was captured by 10 charter companies, while 35 percent of charter companies experienced losses in their ADM during the same period.  Government tax-free bonds and federal charter credit enhancements, which were designed to allow charter holders to acquire educational assets have enabled this overleveraging.”

In his news report, Harris interprets Grand Canyon Institute’s warning in plainer language: “The report’s authors examined financial records including loan documents and school audits submitted to the state for all Arizona charter schools between fiscal 2014 to 2017.  The Grand Canyon Institute found:

  • “Charter schools have $2.56 billion in debt, while their property and assets are valued at $1.4 billion.
  • “The state’s charter market holds 33 percent of all public school debt while educating just 16 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students.
  • “Arizona charter schools primarily borrow for buildings and classrooms using what are deemed as ‘junk bonds’ with high-interest rates guaranteed by projected enrollment growth.  If the growth does not occur, charters have to spend more on mortgage payments and less in the classroom.”

The charter sectors in Washington, D.C., Detroit and the state of Arizona all demonstrate widespread instability. Portfolio school district governance theory imagines quality control through the ongoing shedding of the failing investments in the portfolio. Through so-called “creative disruption,” it’s proponents promise it will stimulate a spiral of school improvement based on the survival of the fittest schools. But by its very definition, portfolio school governance eliminates one of the key features parents look for in a school: stability.

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Chicago Organizes to Confront Portfolio School Reform, Stop School Closures and Disruption

Consider the following description, from The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, a 2016 policy brief from the Network for Public Education, of a school governance practice known as “portfolio school reform.” While you are reading about this school governance practice, think about the city school districts you may know where portfolio school reform is the operational theory—maybe Chicago, or Washington, D.C., or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Indianapolis, or Nashville, or Denver, or Los Angeles.

“As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student, while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed. In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts. Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack. These districts are often run by a governor or mayoral-appointed authority, with locally elected board members stripped of power.”

The brief continues—presenting the definition of “portfolio school reform”: “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. Then reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration. In theory, this process of closing, re-bidding, and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing.  These approaches have been described (positively) as ‘creative destruction’ or (negatively) as ‘churn.'” “CRPE (the Center on Reinventing Public Education which originated portfolio school reform theory and which promotes portfolio school reform) adds pupil-based funding, more flexible use of human capital, and capacity building.”  “Rhetorically, advocates of this reform describe a shift from a ‘school system’ into a ‘system of schools.’ Importantly this approach does not confront nor attempt to remedy policies creating and sustaining concentrated poverty or those perpetuating a racist system of de facto segregation. Therefore, urban districts themselves are characterized as ‘failing.'”

The Chicago Public Schools is one of the largest districts listed by CRPE in its network of portfolio school districts, and Chicago epitomizes management through churn—the opening and closing of so-called failing schools, in addition to the schools that the district judges under-enrolled.  Under-enrollment quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a district like Chicago, however, where per-pupil funding and the rapid opening of new charter schools means that as children leave to try out school choice, they carry their funding away from a school which soon is designated as “under-enrolled.”

Chicago closed 50 elementary schools in 2013 and established a self-imposed five-year moratorium on closing any more. But according to Sarah Karp of WBEZ, “the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines. High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today. Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

Now that Chicago’s five-year moratorium on school closures has ended, Chicago Public Schools just announced another round of closures. And like the 2013 closures, the new reorganization plan will primarily affect schools serving the city’s African American neighborhoods. Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune describing CPS’s plan for the upcoming round of school closings and consolidations in 2018: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common.”

This plan presents some troubling features and lots of conflicts for the parents and students who will be affected. Several South Side high schools will be eliminated, but the plan is to open a brand new high school in 2019 that will serve the affected neighborhoods. The catch is that the current students will be displaced someplace else while all this is happening.

And one of the schools that will cease operation in its current form, a very highly rated elementary school, the National Teachers Academy will be reconstituted as a high school. Again Sarah Karp reports: “Chicago Public Schools leaders want to convert the school, the highly-rated National Teachers Academy elementary school, which serves primarily low-income, black students, into a high school to serve the South Loop and parts of Chinatown, Bronzeville, and Bridgeport. CPS argued the new, non-selective neighborhood high school could be among the city’s most diverse.” Karp cites a new research report that concludes: “a plan to close a Near South Side elementary school will disproportionately harm poor, black children… Among the critics is a two-year-old group called Chicago United for Equity. They undertook the study, which analyzed whether the conversion would have a disparate impact on any one student group.”

Last week parents and students from schools slated for closure or consolidation staged a protest in front of the private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children are enrolled. Hyde Park Herald reporter Tonia Hill summarizes the demands made by families who will be affected: “Parents, students, and advocates are demanding that each school, Team Englewood Community Academy, John Hope College Prep High School, Paul Robeson High School, Harper High School, Hirsch Metropolitan High School and the National Teacher’s Academy, be sustainable community schools… The group is also demanding that CPS allocate funds to advertise their neighborhood schools to middle school age students and their parents.  Most important the group wants to ensure that no student is displaced from the Englewood community.”

Empty Schools: Empty Promises, a stunning, December 2017, report by Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracks “thousands of black students leave(ing) Chicago for other segregated districts.”  Belsha describes families who feel pushed out of Chicago, a  city that has come to feel unwelcoming: “Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its black population, or more than 250,000 people. In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 black students. Now, the school district which was majority black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts… (S)ome academics blame city officials for making it harder for poor African-Americans, in particular, to live in Chicago: They closed neighborhood schools and mental health clinics; failed to rebuild public housing, dispersing thousands of poor black families across the region, and inadequately responded to gun violence, unemployment and foreclosures in black communities. ‘It’s a menu of disinvestment’ says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. ‘The message that public policy sends to black families in the city is we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.'”

Many believe the opening and closing of public schools and the resulting neighborhood disruption is driving away families who simply seek stability for their children. If test scores and funding were the only factors being considered, Belsha describes research showing that parents might be better off staying in Chicago: “The Reporter looked at the 50 Illinois school districts most impacted by transfers from Chicago’s predominantly poor, black schools. Most districts were among the worst-funded in the state and have been shortchanged even more than CPS… High-poverty districts in northwest Indiana that took in many CPS transfers have also seen their budgets slashed in recent years….”

Stability is the bottom line for many families who want their children to be enrolled in schools near home, to be able to develop a community of peers and to know the teachers.

It is hard to sift out all the variables in Chicago. But one factor that may be contributing to decisions being made by portfolio school managers in the Chicago Public Schools is quietly mentioned. It’s never proven in the studies but it remains a lingering question. On Chicago’s South Side today, isn’t one factor implicated in these recently announced closures and reconfigurations really gentrification?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Education Policy Center Releases Profound Analysis of Portfolio School Reform

In a new policy brief, the National Education Policy Center has published a lucid and pithy summary of the tragedy happening today in urban public school districts across the United States:

“As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding… This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty…. But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.”

And the proposed governance solution is portfolio school reform. In The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, the National Education Policy Center defines the concept of portfolio school reform as it has been adopted in 39 school districts that include New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Denver.

Portfolio School Reform is a theory and a project—“the brainchild of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and it has caught fire.”  “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. When reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration.  In theory, this process of closing, re-bidding, and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing. These approaches have been described (positively) as ‘creative destruction’ or (negatively) as ‘churn.'”  Such school restructuring takes place primarily in school districts under state or mayoral control with local school boards “typically shunted aside.”

Evaluating the research about the specific effects of such policies is difficult—“hampered by messy reform contexts, where portfolios are only one of several major ongoing reforms… and also hampered by definitional problems—elastic labels with different components and different names… applied in different places.”  Despite these research challenges, however, the brief concludes that charter schools seem not to have much impact on test scores; school closures result in instability; turnaround approaches in schools have been disappointing; and research on mayoral control shows mixed evidence when measured by test scores.

Such school takeovers have usually happened in African American and Latino communities.  “Looking specifically at portfolio approaches, the private management of a community’s schools eliminates democratic accountability, substituting a system where schools are held accountable (by a central-office manager) for meeting performance standards or are held accountable through market forces.”

The brief recommends that governance changes can neither replace adequate funding for schools in the poorest communities nor  substitute for the careful selection and retention of quality school leaders and teachers.  “Children living  in our most unstable environments need stable school environments.”  The reforms most likely to serve children and support their learning are responsive curriculum and pedagogy, a stable staff of well-qualified teachers, small classes that promote relationships between children and caring adults, and on-site wraparound services to bring medical and social supports for families.

The brief concludes: “(A)ll the evidence suggests that no governance approach will come close to mitigating the harms caused by policies generating concentrated poverty in our urban communities.”

I urge you to study carefully this simple, direct, and profound analysis of our society’s dogged determination to ignore educational inequality and the effects of poverty and segregation as we pretend that mere imposition of governance changes and privatization will improve the schools across our cities.

Charter School Sector Out of Control

Last week when Ohio’s progressive Senator Sherrod Brown introduced (to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill being considered right now by the U.S. Senate) an amendment for federal regulation of charter schools, the Plain Dealer reported that he noted the irony that the very people who complain about waste, fraud, and abuse in government are now defending unregulated charter schools.

Whether or not Brown’s “Charter School Accountability Act of 2015” is enacted in this session of Congress, it is absolutely important that someone has finally introduced regulation of charter schools into the Congressional debate about education.  Just last month, a group of national organizations, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to remind him that the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General had, “raised concern about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter School Program,” and to demand a moratorium on new charter schools until regulation is improved.  The Office of Inspector General had reported in 2012 that neither the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, nor the state education agencies which disburse the majority of federal funds are equipped to keep adequate records or establish even minimal oversight of charter schools.  But according to the Alliance’s letter, nothing has been done to improve oversight.  And yet, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, “The department has given $1.7 billion in grants to charter schools since fiscal 2009.”  This blog covered the letter sent to Secretary Duncan from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools here.

Nowhere has the experiment with charters been as extensive as New Orleans, where ten years ago after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city, laws were swiftly changed to enable the state of Louisiana to declare the majority of New Orleans’ public schools “failing” and to seize the schools into the state-run Recovery School District that turned the majority of schools into privately managed charter schools. The Recovery School District in New Orleans has been bragged about in the press and in a mass of research literature produced by proponents of its “portfolio school reform” strategy.  And Louisiana’s creation of a “recovery district” or state appointed emergency manager has been copied by, for example, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, and very recently by Ohio for Youngstown’s schools, and Wisconsin for Milwaukee’s schools.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is an organization at the University of Colorado that has undertaken the project of reviewing research produced too often by think tanks with a bias.  On Monday, NEPC released a statement to raise concerns about the much-publicized research that has been produced to endorse the New Orleans charter experiment:  “This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina…. Following this tragedy, an extraordinary experiment in market-driven governance of public school was imposed on the city.  On this anniversary, advocacy groups and think tanks have issued numerous reports touting the claimed success of the New Orleans model, pointing to test scores that are higher than before Katrina, and championing its export to other disadvantaged communities.  Past claims put forward by these groups have rarely been supported by rigorous, objective research.  In fact, independent researchers have disputed these claims, arguing that the massive out-migration of students may have resulted in inflated scores for those remaining.  Other scholars have noted that the test standards were changed and the gains were exaggerated.”

NEPC suggests that whether or not test scores have significantly risen, there are other standards by which a school district must be evaluated.  NEPC endorses independent research that now documents: that the fragmented mass of charter schools have not always done a good job of providing services for students with special needs;  that low-income families’ school choice has been far more constrained by lack of transportation and after-school care while wealthier families have far less constrained choices; that some charter schools have been skimming the best students through tactics involving selective advertising and recruitment; and that the massive layoff of all the district’s teachers after the 2005 hurricane has left the district with far fewer African American teachers and fewer teachers with at least 10 years of experience.  NEPC adds: “Voters in New Orleans have lost control over the majority of their public schools, and have almost no say in whether they will get those schools back.”

A report released in May by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools adds another serious worry.  Just as there has been lack of adequate oversight of charter schools at the federal level and across the states in general, Louisiana and the New Orleans Recovery School District have been ill-equipped to ensure adequate financial and academic oversight of New Orleans’ charter schools.  The report documents the size of the public’s financial investment in Louisiana Recovery District charter schools: “These schools have received substantial federal and state taxpayer support, totaling $71.8 million from federal Charter School Program grants and billions from Louisiana taxpayers.  In school year 2014/2015 Louisiana taxpayers will have poured over $831 million into charter schools.”

Oversight to protect taxpayers and students has not accompanied the massive investment of tax dollars, however. “The rapid growth and massive investment in charter schools has been accompanied by a dramatic underinvestment in oversight, leaving Louisiana’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers at risk of academic failures and financial fraud.”  Here are the problems the Center for Popular Democracy identifies: “Oversight depends too heavily on self-reporting by charter schools or the reports of whistleblowers… The general auditing techniques used in charter school reports do not uncover fraud on their own…  Inadequate staffing prevents the thorough detection and elimination of fraud.”  “As the state has insufficiently resourced financial oversight, it has failed to create a structure that provides struggling schools and their students with a pathway to academic success… Since 2005, approximately $700 million in public tax dollars have been spent on charter schools that currently have not achieved a C or better on the state’s grading system.”  The report, recommends very basic reforms including that “underlying data comparators remain consistent from year to year to allow oversight officials and the public to accurately compare school performance,” that the state investigate whether there has been cheating by some schools to elevate their scores, and that the state audit school-reported data regularly to ensure it is accurate.

The National Education Policy Center warns this week that broader and more extensive research is needed for a comprehensive understanding of the meaning New Orleans’ school reform: “Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers… (I)t is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores.  The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores.  In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a ‘recovery’ or ‘portfolio’ model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.”

Inventor of Portfolio School Reform Confirms It Isn’t Working Well

The portfolio strategy of school reform embodies the idea of school choice. The provision of a range of privatized charter schools and the elimination of assigned school attendance zones are central to the theory, which was developed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, whose website declares, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.”  Robin Lake, the Center’s director, might be called the mother of this theory that envisions the governance of education through the lens of creative disruption—schools managed like a business portfolio, with new schools continually introduced and failures dropped from the portfolio.

I was impressed that when Robin Lake recently visited Detroit, she was quoted in the Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools in Michigan criticizing the management of school choice.  I have always hoped that proponents of privatization might take a second look if it were proven that charters and vouchers are not accomplishing what was promised: closing achievement gaps and significantly and measurably improving the education of children who are struggling in public schools.  I was encouraged to read in the Free Press that Lake agreed with critics that school choice in Detroit these days is a morass.  In Detroit, Lake said charters “have created a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of great new schools are up and running as a result.”  She added, however, that “not enough attention has been paid to quality and equity access in Detroit.” She said that today Detroit has a massive oversupply of schools but “a lack of high-quality seats.”  She said parents “are having a difficult time navigating their options.”  “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.”  “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.”   Lake’s conclusions, however, at the end of her Free Press interview disappointed me.  She reverted to ideology, minimized the problems she had just described, and affirmed choice and creative disruption: “You don’t want to close off the door to innovation by saying everyone has to have a cookie-cutter approach.” “You’ll end up with the same public schools we’re trying to get away from.”

This month the Center on Reinventing Public Education followed up on Lake’s Free Press critique by publishing a scathing report about the problems Lake observed in Detroit.  Lake and her colleagues, Michael DeArmond and Ashley Jochim  base their conclusions on a survey of 4,000 parents in Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., although the report includes a significant section on the special problems in Detroit.  Here are some of the concerns raised by Lake and her colleagues:

Lack of Access:  “Many parents—especially those in the most disadvantaged circumstances—face barriers that limit their ability to choose a school for their child, including inadequate information, lack of convenient transportation, and uneven school quality.”  The lack of guidance for parents is a problem in traditional public and charter schools today, as many school districts have eliminated assigned attendance zones.  In Detroit, the problem is described for parents as severe: “a lack of information, confusing paperwork, and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child…  ‘There are no watchdogs in Detroit to make sure parents… get what they need from schools,’ said a charter school leader.’ ‘They’re on their own.'”

Lack of Opportunity:  An over-supply of schools exists in Detroit and competition for students is intense: “The biggest challenge facing parents… is not a lack of choice but a lack of good schools.”  Neither traditional public schools nor charter schools in Detroit are posting significantly increased test scores.  Parents’ education is identified again and again as a barrier to their participating fully and effectively in school choice.  “For example, 40 percent of parents with less than a high school diploma cited problems understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend compared to 24 percent for parents with a BA or more.  Less-educated parents were 72 percent more likely to cite transportation as a barrier and 58 percent more likely to cite problems getting the information they needed to make a choice than more educated parents.”

Fragmentation of Services:  “Who is responsible for ensuring that choice produces a good set of options for families in urban education?  For Detroit and many other cities, the answer to this question is no longer the traditional public school district.  Increasingly, a range of agencies and organizations–including local school districts, state agencies, charter school authorizers, and nonprofit providers—oversee and operate schools in American cities.  These groups compete for students and often have few incentives to cooperate on crosscutting issues that shape how school choice works (or does not work) for families.”  “This state of affairs makes it difficult for city leaders to address crosscutting issues (such as parent information systems or transportation) that affect everyone but are no one’s responsibility.”  School choice exists across states with a range of school governance.  Sometimes a city has one school district, but a city like Phoenix has 28 different school district jurisdictions within the city itself.  “These multi-district systems pose special problems for charter operators who might draw families from a dozen or more nearby school districts.  If a charter operator in one of these cities wanted to coordinate with local school districts on enrollment timelines or collaborate to share data on feeder patterns, for example, they might have to negotiate separate agreements with each school district.”

Lack of Oversight: Because nobody is in charge, oversight is too often entirely lacking.  “… some districts are overseen by traditionally elected school boards, but others are overseen by mayors or states; some charter school authorizers are local school districts, but others are state education agencies, independent boards, higher education institutions, nonprofits, or municipal governments.  In some places such as Ohio nonprofit charter authorizers may contract with for-profit organizations to manage the authorization process… By dispersing oversight authority across many different groups and putting those groups in competition for resources, it becomes much more difficult for city leaders to drive improvements… or address the challenges facing parents citywide.”  A serious problem documented here is that lack of authority for oversight is making it impossible in many cities to put the worst charter schools out of business.

In this report the Center on Reinventing Public Education has published a scathing indictment of the way its school reform strategy is being implemented across America’s big cities.  One would hope to read some accompanying concern about the validity of the strategy itself, but that is not the case in this report: “However it manifests in a particular city, school choice is increasingly the new normal in urban education and shows no sign of going away.”  The authors title the report: Making School Choice Work.

But how to make the theory work?  In their section of recommendations, the researchers plead with those who oversee the fragmented mass of education options to work together voluntarily with good will.  “In many cities, however, the situation is too dire to wait for people to come together voluntarily.  In those cases, state leaders, mayors, and others need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face large barriers to choice…. In other cases, formal governance changes may be necessary to reduce the number of authorizers involved, take away some agencies’ authority to open new schools, or create specialized agencies or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice.”  Of course such reforms are dependent on the politics of state legislatures, where money and influence flow freely, but the report does not acknowledge such political realities.  The report documents that the adoption of portfolio school reform across America’s big cities has opened a Pandora’s box of structural school governance problems that no state or city, to my knowledge, has been able to control.

It is fascinating to me that Lake and her colleagues persist—despite all their evidence that such school choice has brought neither access, nor opportunity, nor coordinated services or nor quality oversight—in declaring that traditional public schools are something that society needs to get away from and parents must have the right to escape.  Why refuse even to consider that traditional public education—with the advantages of a coherent and coordinated system of services and a long and growing history of oversight to protect school quality, financial stewardship, equal access, and equal opportunity—may be the best kind of school governance to serve the needs and protect the rights of the greatest number of children?

Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District

Last week this blog reviewed the concept of “portfolio school reform” as it is being practiced in Chicago, New York City, and Newark.  It is a theory promoted actively by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which posts a map of the school districts identified formally as its network of portfolio school districts.

Last week’s post on this blog did not cover one school district prominent on the Center’s map, a district where controversy over portfolio school reform is roiling—Philadelphia.  The controversy spilled over this month into a panel discussion at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which was holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia.  Local activists involved in the portfolio school reform debate had been invited to be part of AERA’s panel.

Last Friday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss featured a guest column by Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist who was part of that panel at AERA.  Gym describes portfolio school reform as it was defined on the panel by Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), Philadelphia’s primary cheerleader and fund raiser for portfolio school reform.

Gleason’s definition is blunt, honest, and very clear: “So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally…. you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”

Dumping the losers!   Here is Gym’s description of the response at the AERA conference: “The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent  A group confronted Gleason afterword about everything from the ‘losers’ framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles.  The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks.  But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality.”

Gym continues by describing what she, a parent of children in the School District of Philadelphia, sees as the reality today in Philadelphia: “Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools.  In the last few years—fueled in part by ‘philanthropic’ venture capitalists like PSP—this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools.  Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent.  Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,00-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually—and there’s no end in sight.”

Philadelphia’s imposition of portfolio school reform has been compounded by a financial crisis, covered in this blog, due to drastic funding cuts from the state of Pennsylvania.  While Gym does not detail the state funding cuts that have, along with the move to charterize, catastrophically undermined Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, she does accurately describe the consequences: huge classes, 100 split-grade classes in elementary school, closing school libraries, making nurses responsible for serving several schools, and slashing 4,220 district staff, many of them teachers and counselors.

Questioning Gleason’s definition of portfolio school reform, “dumping the losers,” Gym wonders, “Are our school being set up to look like ‘losers’?”  I urge you to read Gym’s column because it does such a good job of connecting the dots.