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A new blend of public and private

Districts are looking to an array of providers to create high-performing schools. The approach has raised concerns about the future of public education.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

School closings. Private providers running public schools. Downsizing the central office while giving principals the reins to hire, budget, and set curriculum. Rapid expansion of charters.

Not too many years ago these might have been radical ideas. Now, they are commonplace, with two dozen urban districts – including New York City, Washington, New Orleans, and Los Angeles – embracing what is called the portfolio model.

The School District of Philadelphia now touts its expanding mix of traditional and charter schools as well as its Renaissance Schools – neighborhood schools run by charter management companies.

The idea is to create a portfolio of school choices for parents. That array of options will grow even bigger as envisioned by the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, which is promoting collaboration to improve all the public, charter, private, and Catholic schools in the city. Toward that end, the Philadelphia School Partnership has raised $50 million – half its goal – to fund promising programs.

It was just 10 years ago when the District’s efforts to salvage low-performing schools included a portfolio approach of sorts. Then, it turned over 45 schools to outside education management organizations, or EMOs, and restructured 21 other schools. But after research showed that District-run restructured schools showed better reading and math results, the School Reform Commission re-assumed control over most of the EMO schools.

Still, the District supports using a similar approach today, with the SRC presenting a transformation plan that proposes extensive job cuts – thousands of which have already taken place – closing dozens of schools, expanding charter options, and creating “achievement networks,” many of them run
by private entities, to support clusters of 20-30 schools. The plan is drastic, but necessary, school leaders say.

“What we do know through lots of history and evidence and practice is that the current structure doesn’t work,” said SRC Chair Pedro Ramos.

“It’s not fiscally sustainable and it doesn’t produce high-quality schools for all kids.”

Betheny Gross, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, says using the portfolio model approach is “a big shift” for school systems and especially for those working in central offices. “[We] characterize it as a continu-ous improvement process,” said Gross.

“You will be reworking and remapping, and things will unfold differently in different districts.”

The birth of a model

The term “portfolio management” is borrowed from Wall Street, where the idea is to buy winning stocks and sell losers. The notion of continuous quality improvement is terminology made famous in the manufacturing sector.

Central to the approach is a district’s willingness to close failing schools and then help families find good alternatives.

Katrina Bulkley, professor of education at Montclair State University, said one concern is ensuring that those alternatives are actually accessible to all students. In some cities, charter management groups have been perceived as reluctant to locate in very poor or unstable neighborhoods, she said.

“The issue around equity is an important piece to track,” Bulkley said.

In Philadelphia, most of the two dozen charter schools that came up for renewal in 2012 were found by the District to have created “significant barriers to entry,” despite a state law that bans discrimination in student selection.

Even as it loosens control, district administration still “plays a critical role” in identifying providers, articulating and measuring clear goals, and intervening when schools are not performing, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

“The portfolio approach clearly puts the government in the position of being the prime general contractor, and if the prime general contractor doesn’t know what it’s doing, then you have a problem,” Henig said.

A view from both sides

Proponents of the portfolio approach say it puts more focus on increasing “high-performing seats” across a district and less on saving a particular neighborhood school or defending against private-sector intrusions. They cite academic gains in Denver and improved graduation rates in New York City, among other positive indicators so far.

Skeptics say the trend so far has proved costly and unwieldy while stripping community input from the school closings process. They also contend that evidence of success is thin.

Diane Ravitch, a researcher and charter school advocate turned critic, commented on Philadelphia’s portfolio-based plan in her blog: “Nothing in the [Blueprint] plan says what they will do to improve teaching and learning. There is nothing about class size, nothing about support for hard-pressed educators. Just trust these guys who know how to make money in the private sector.”

For the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Center City, “the issue is about the process. … At the end of the day we may all agree we need to close these schools and make these changes. But we won’t know that until we have a community-centered process, and right now … citizens’ voices aren’t being heard.”

Arguably one of the District’s more successful turnaround efforts – and one that allowed for community input – is its Renaissance initiative.

In 2010, the District turned over seven chronically low-performing schools to three charter management companies based on their track records running independent charter schools. They are called Renaissance Schools. At the same time it created District-run Promise Academies with some new staff and additional resources.

Both sets of schools made strides in student achievement and attendance, according to a Research for Action analysis last winter. Since 2010, charter managers have acquired 10 more District schools. All the schools in the initiative draw from surrounding neighborhoods. They are not special admission schools.

As these charter managers acquire neighborhood high schools and nearby K-8 schools, they may be poised to become candidates to run one or more of the “achievement networks” now envisioned by the District.

SRC members say the Renaissance Schools and Promise Academies are cost-effective while apparently doing a good job.

But scaling up from running a few schools to managing 20-30 is proving difficult elsewhere, said Bulkley.

“Some of the apparently most successful providers are promoting a slow-growth strategy, taking the time to build from existing staff,” she said, calling this approach “logical.”

Whether funding is adequate locally to draw well-regarded management groups also is a question.

Henig, at Teachers College, points out that the system needs adequate resources.

“Too often the folks who are pushing the portfolio management model are also pushing for major cutbacks,” he noted. “The result is that you quite likely will get a brain drain, and you won’t have that administrative and political capacity at the core to do the job.”

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