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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two articles this week update concerns about portfolio school reform:

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter

“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” reports Othella Stanback, a Philadelphia high school senior whose high school was closed over the summer.  She knows no teachers at her new school well enough this fall to ask someone to write the recommendations she needs to apply for college.  In Dispatch from Philadelphia: The Brutal End of Public Education Julianne Hing reports for ColorLines on the meaning for students of the school closures in Philadelphia and the implications of similar problems in other struggling city school districts.

“Last year the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools.  On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution… In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s.  This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.”

At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia where hundreds of students were transferred this year from closed schools, cuts in previous years have pared the curriculum, eliminating pre-Calculus, honors classes for ninth graders and an advanced writing class. Today the school is served by only one counselor.  In November, after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finally released an additional $45 million to the Philadelphia schools, 80 counselors were hired by the district, ensuring that every high school has one counselor.  The reporter notes: “Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now.  Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times.”

Compounding the financial problems in Philadelphia is the imposition by the state imposed School Reform Commission of a “portfolio school reform” plan, prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group.  This is a plan designed with business-model “creative disruption” in mind—open and close schools including private charters in a continuing cycle, rewarding success and punishing failure.  But as the reporter notes, instability and loss are the way this looks to the students, and they are adolescents who desperately need stability in the institution on which they depend.

“Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone.  In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas.  In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor…. the consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system are falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates.”

School Reform Information Controlled by Funders and Think Tanks? What about the Public’s Right to Know?

In Philadelphia, the state-appointed School Reform Commission got the William Penn Foundation, a philanthropy, to pay the Boston Consulting Group, a contractor, to design the “portfolio school reform plan” that recommended closing public schools and opening charter schools.

Twenty-four public schools were eventually closed last spring.  For the public, it has been hard to parse out which part of Philadelphia’s ongoing school catastrophe derives from Governor Corbett’s slashing $1 billion from the state’s public education budget and what part comes from an ideological, “portfolio” Philadelphia school reform plan that promotes privatization.  (For more on the crisis in the Philadelphia schools this year, check out the three part series earlier this week from National Public Radio, here, here and here.)

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss republishes a piece by Helen Gym, a parent activist in Philadelphia.  Gym writes about the struggles members of the public have experienced as they try to secure access to the list of 60 public schools the Boston Consulting Group recommended for closure.  Gym speculates that these days, while information may be available to the philanthropies funding reform plans and the consultants and contractors designing the plans and other big givers who are trying to influence school reform, the public cannot get access to the information that is shaping public institutions.

Gym writes: “The closing of 24 schools in Philadelphia remains the single most important issue of the year. The closings affected more than 9,000 students and transformed school communities. They also had an impact on political and real estate dealings, with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Last week, city leaders guaranteed a $61 million swap to fast-track real estate deals for shuttered school buildings. News reports indicate that several, mostly unnamed, buyers have shown interest in sweeping up all the properties for a single sum — in one case, an offer of $100 million.  Given the stakes, it is absolutely the public’s right to know what’s in the documents presented to the District.”

Privatization of Education Won’t Erase Savage Inequalities

For generations our society has committed itself to the provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—as the best institution for balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the need to crate a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.

New articles published this week trace two specific ways we are veering from these ideals.

In the New York Times, Eduardo Porter reports that In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich.  Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, who manages international educational assessments for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.): “The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”  Porter provides stunning numbers that document educational investment disparities reminiscent of the Savage Inequalities Jonathan Kozol reported 22 years ago.  According to Porter, “In New York… in 2011 the value of property in the poorest 10 percent of school districts amounted to some $287,000 per student…. In the richest districts it amounted, on average, to $1.9 million.”  Porter reports that spending per-pupil across the states ranges from $19,000 in New York to $8,200 in Tennessee to $5,321 in Alpine, Utah.

Instead of setting out to equalize public investment from state to state or school district to school district, leaders of both political parties are pushing privatization and school choice as though they are a solution to the problems posed by child poverty, inequality, and vastly unequal school investment.  Writing for SALON.com, Jeff Bryant explicates The Charter-School Lie: Market-Based Education Gambles with Our Children.  According to Bryant, marketplace education reform is conceptualized around the idea of creative destruction—on-going churn. “The supposed benefit to all this is that parents get a ‘choice’ about where they send their children to school. But while parents are pushed to pick their schools in the increasingly turbulent bazaar of ‘choice,’ the game resembles much less a level playing field and much more a game of chance in which the house rules determine the odds.”  “Abruptly opening and closing schools—leaving school children, parents and communities in the lurch and taxpayers holding the bag—is not a matter of happenstance.  It’s by design.”

The school reform strategy Bryant describes has a name: “portfolio school reform”—school districts managed like a business portfolio of traditional public and charter or voucher alternatives all managed through ongoing ‘creative destruction’—new schools opening and others continually closing.  Significantly the school districts listed as “portfolio school districts” on the website of the Center for Reinventing Public Education are the same kind of districts Porter describes in his NY Times piece.  They are 35 big city school districts where poverty is concentrated, where inequality and segregation have been rigidified, and where state spending is not enough to bring investment per pupil to the level in the surrounding suburban school districts. They include Baltimore, Bridgeport, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Hartford, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis/Shelby County, New Haven, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Our society’s most urgent educational priority must be to invest in improving the public schools in the communities where family poverty is concentrated, very often the same places that lack property tax wealth.  School choice, as Bryant points out, is at best a gamble in an era of constant churn with schools being opened and closed in an ongoing cycle. Our historic vision of public schools as the heart of our neighborhoods—schools that are publicly owned and publicly accountable—is a far better bet for our poorest children and for our society.

Privatization Proliferates: Vouchers, Charters, and Portfolio School Reform

If you live in a small city, a rural area, or even a suburb you may not be watching the privatization of K-12 education in your own community.  But privatization is proliferating; just let us count the ways.  Two articles in the press this week and one new academic report will help.

Privatization is happening mainly in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities, places where test scores reflect the poverty of the children enrolled and where, as a condition for awarding Title I Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, the federal government is pressing school districts and states to close public schools and open charter schools.  Privatization is also being driven by conservative politicians and political donors who allege that charter and voucher schools will serve children better and cost less.

Writing for PoliticoPro, reporter Stephanie Simon demonstrates that, Vouchers Don’t Do Much for Students. Vouchers and voucher-like tuition tax credit programs are now paying for 245,000 students in 16 states and the District of Columbia to attend private schools at public expense.  “Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition—and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”  Tracking the oldest voucher programs in Wisconsin and Ohio, Simon demonstrates that students perform no better than their public school counterparts, and in Wisconsin, two-thirds of voucher students never attended the public schools but are receiving public vouchers to cover tuition at parochial or private schools. Simon quotes Wisconsin state legislator Sandy Pope: “The taxpayers are paying for a second, competing school system that doesn’t do as well as the one we already have.”  Simon also notes the many voucher schools across the U.S. that openly violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by teaching biblical creationism in science classes.

In his regular Education Week blog column this week, Anthony Cody reports that while their proponents dub charter schools “public charter schools,” these same charter advocates contend that charter schools are private entities when a school’s operation is questioned as a regulatory case reaches the courts.  Cody describes a California case where a trial court convicted a California couple “of multiple counts of fraud related to their practice of using their charter school bank account for personal expenses and thousands of dollars worth of meals.”  As part of the legal appeals process, the California Charter Schools Association filed an amicus brief alleging that “charter schools are deemed to be private entities under the law of California,” and “employees of the nonrofit corporation operating a charter school are not public employees.”  “So let’s end this hoax,” writes Cody.  “Charter schools are happy to accept public dollars, but reject the oversight and accountability that comes with operation as a public school.”

Finally there is the new report from the National Education Policy Center that exposes the slick sales pitches made to school districts by proponents of “portfolio school reform.”

Portfolio school reform is the model made famous in New Orleans in 2005, when the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina created what Naomi Klein in her important book, The Shock Doctrine, calls the “opportunity” for privatizers to swoop in with a plan to remake a public school district through a business model.  Portfolio School Reform was developed and promoted at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, with the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The model prescribes the rapid expansion of a charter school sector in the “portfolio school district” and the adoption of a theory of disruption or churn, with low-scoring schools closed and “successful” models opened in a continuing cycle.  Although the assumption is that the teachers and the school itself are the variable that determines the test scores,  not coincidentally, all 35 of the “portfolio districts” listed on the Center’s website today are among the nation’s largest city districts with so-called “failing” schools located in neighborhoods experiencing concentrated poverty.  Among the “portfolio districts” on the list are New York City, Washington ,D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Hartford, New Haven, Baltimore, and Memphis/Shelby County.

The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado (NEPC) was established for the purpose of examining the research presented to justify particular school reforms.  In this week’s analysis, NEPC examines two powerpoints from advocates in Memphis and New Orleans that were presented to the Milwaukee Association of Commerce as that organization prepared to decide whether to endorse portfolio school reform for Milwaukee.  NEPC analysts conclude, “Although no rigorous research has yet examined the effectiveness of portfolio governance structures, the presentations are aimed at encouraging their adoption… Policymakers considering such reforms should not act without a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of relevant evidence…. They should acknowledge the thin evidence base on portfolio governance and consider possible alternative explanations for those asserted results.  Specifically, the reported achievement gains are suspect and may be attributable to other unexamined factors such as the massive out-migration of New Orleans students.”