How shocked should we be really?
On Friday, Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason embraced a stunningly blunt description of the District’s “portfolio model” at a session of the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting. Gleason was attempting to explain why the portfolio model depends on school closings in a system where multiple operators run schools.
“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,” he said.
The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent. A group confronted Gleason afterward 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 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. More important, they describe what is actually happening in the District. If District and city leaders take issue, they need to explain how their policies – and the impact of them – are so much different.
Let’s take a look at the facts.
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 67,000-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.
This year, the District is instituting a de facto parent trigger vote at two public schools that exemplifies the moral bankruptcy of this approach: Convert to charter – a move the District concedes will result in so-called “stranded costs” of up to $4,000 per student – or opt to stay within the District with no promise of additional resources. In other words, the District will sacrifice some $5 million to see a school convert to a charter but won’t spend additional resources if a school remains under District management.
Hite has called those costs a “wise investment.” I call that an abdication of your mission.
District and city leaders may not like the word “losers,” but they have employed some pretty extreme language themselves in defense of this model.
Mayor Nutter has dismissed differences between public, private, religious and charter schools as mere “esoteric debates.” He’s also described mass school closings as something “we all need to grow up and deal with.”
Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn recently wrote a journal article titled “Innovate or Perish?” in which he stated that the District was “committed to a set of innovations in infrastructure and service provision to facilitate the development and sustaining of new school models that better meet the needs of all students.” Ensuring adequate resources to deliver quality schools? Not mentioned.
In November, the District unveiled its approach toward creating “Options for Increasing Students’ Access to Better Schools.”