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.
by Connie Langland
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.