What Is the Legacy of Renaissance 2010 School Choice in Chicago?

On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.

Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools.  It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”

The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions.  Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”

The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What was Renaissance 2010?  After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.

The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.

Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”  The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s  Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.  A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance.  Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, FailingBrown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

Chicago Sticks to Portfolio School Reform Despite All the Evidence that It Isn’t Working

Inertia is a scientific term from physics: something in motion will stay in motion unless some kind of external force changes its speed or trajectory.  In a less technical way, inertia is also a principle applicable to social policy. Inertia and commitment to “implementing the plan” are such strong forces that they will block out evidence that the plan is not working—has never been working.  All evidence to the contrary, the plan just keeps on being implemented.  Take, for example, portfolio school reform in Chicago.

We’ve had over a decade now to watch what has happened in the second large school district to institute portfolio school reform.  (Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already launched a similar program in New York City.) Wikipedia, which can be trusted for such basic factual information tells us: “Renaissance 2010… was announced in June 2004 by the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago. Renaissance 2010 called for 100 new schools by 2010. Under Renaissance 2010, the Chicago Public Schools closed over 80 public schools, and sought to create 100 charter schools by 2010. These schools were to be held accountable for test score performance through 5-year contracts while following one of three governance structures: charter, contract, or performance.”

The academic outfit that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell.  (CRPE is not an academic division of the University of Washington but is instead a Gates-funded think tank located at the university. That distinction is important.) 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.”  CRPE also lists seven components of a portfolio strategy: good options and choices, school autonomy, pupil-based funding for each school, talent-seeking strategy, schools choosing from an array of independent providers, performance-based accountability, and extensive public engagement.  All this, claims CRPE, will ensure “a great school for every child in every neighborhood.”

Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, Arne Duncan’s project before he became the U.S. Secretary of Education, epitomizes portfolio school reform. And Renaissance 2010 became the template for the sort of governance reform Duncan brought to the U.S. Department of Education as the basis for the ill-fated School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top programs.  The theory is competitive: you give parents school choice; you attach funding to the school on a per-student basis so that when students leave, their funding follows; you reward winning schools by keeping them open; and you punish losing schools by closing them. Chicago has experienced an unprecedented number of school closures on the mostly African American South and West Sides.

And today, February 28, 2018, the Chicago Board of Education will vote on another school closure or phase out plan centered in Englewood, the South Side neighborhood just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The board will close or perhaps phase out four high schools and one elementary school and set in motion a plan for a new high school to open a year in the future. Families have been furious that their high school students would be displaced over the next year. Protests have perhaps been effective enough that the school board may phase out rather than abruptly closing three of the high schools, which would allow current students to graduate from the schools they have been attending.  But nobody is proposing to end portfolio school reform in Chicago;  once a portfolio plan is in place, the CEO is hired not so much to run the public schools as to manage the portfolio plan.

Here are merely some of the factors that the theory of portfolio school reform seems to have missed.

First, as Chicago has continued to launch new charter schools and specialty schools and selective schools, parents have been enticed by the advertising along with the idea that at least at the selective schools, their children will study with a more elite peer group. Parents have been willing to try out the choice schools and have their children travel long distances to elite schools and thereby abandon the neighborhood schools, whose funding drops as children leave. This process has hollowed out the comprehensive neighborhood high schools, which have been left serving a very vulnerable population with a higher percentage of students in special education. Last week’s Chicago Sun-Times reported that there has even been cheating on the lotteries, cheating in which school leaders have been able to find space for their children or relatives’ children in more elite schools, leaving behind students without powerful connections. This is a lifeboat strategy gone bad—a system that saves the privileged and leaves behind on the sinking ship the children who lack means or power or extreme talent.

Reporter Sarah Karp for WBEZ News describes the response of Janice Jackson, the current CEO of the Chicago Public Schools: “Jackson casts the dire situation of these Englewood schools largely as the result of circumstances beyond the school district’s control, like a hurricane. Families make choices, she said, by moving out of the area or sending their children elsewhere—options she insists all families deserve.” Karp reviews the history: “Daley (former Mayor Richard M. Daley) and Duncan also wanted to apply pressure on poor performing neighborhood schools across Chicago by creating competition with new, privately run schools. To advance this goal, in 2004 Daley announced Renaissance 2010, a plan to open 100 new schools within the decade. Many of the new schools were charter schools. Those are run by private organizations but are publicly funded.  Englewood, where many of the schools were poor performing, got an influx of new schools. Between 2005 and 2015, CPS opened nine high schools within about two miles of Hope (one of the schools now threatened with closure)… Chicago has always tied school budgets to enrollment, but in recent years as CPS has adopted a market-based approach to education, the relationship has become stronger. Starting in 2013, CPS implemented student-based budgeting, where money follows students. That thrust schools into fierce competition for students.”  Karp calls all this “A death spiral.”

Chicago has experimented with portfolio school reform at the same time its poorest neighborhoods have been decimated by the foreclosure crisis. Population declined in very poor neighborhoods like Englewood due to the financial crisis, but there is evidence that destabilization of the neighborhood’s schools has also contributed to a trend of families looking for more stable school districts in which to rear their children.  In December 2017,  Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracked “thousands of black students leav(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.’”

Here is the conclusion of a March 2017, Roosevelt University study of how portfolio school reform may have contributed to this trend in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in a 2016 brief for the National Education Policy Center, The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, remind us that portfolio school reform has substituted accountability-based school governance changes for the more expensive and likely more effective reform that could have been tried: investing in addressing poverty and financially supporting the schools serving children in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  Here are Mathis and Welner: “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. 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… School turnaround approaches have, in general, been very disappointing, in large part because of the problems with closures and charter schools. The churn in the system, loss of institutional knowledge and loss of culture results in community and school disturbance and instability. Closing even low-performing schools can prove disruptive as community support dissipates….”

We’ll need to watch what action is taken today by the Chicago Board of Education—an entity, incidentally, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not elected by Chicago’s citizens. Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who was instrumental in the 2015, month-long hunger strike that eventually re-opened Dyett High School as a neighborhood high school and who leads the national Journey for Justice Alliance, is reported to be concerned by the kind of displacement that has been repeated endlessly across Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods in the past decade due to school closures: “Stopping the schools from closing, it’s only a small part of the issue. What is the vision for public education for working and low-income black families? Who shapes that vision?”

Brown’s question is really at the heart of the school choice debate. Should education for the children of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods be driven by the invisible hand of the school-choice marketplace as parents are lured by advertising to try out the latest charter school—and as their child carries funding from the neighborhood school? And what about a tiered system of selective schools and neighborhood schools, but where funding follows the child? Does the school district have an obligation to the children who are not selected or who elect to attend school in their neighborhoods?

Truth Telling by Chicago Educators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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