As usual, Karen Lewis is trying to manage a dozen things at once.
And as usual, Lewis’s son, 8-year-old Cooper Harbol, is the focus of her efforts.
While Lewis cleans the kitchen and scrambles to find her shoes, Cooper gets lost in the elaborate toy world he has constructed on the coffee table. He’s oblivious to his mother’s pleas to brush his teeth.
“Cooper, put down the Lego, please,” says Lewis. “Today’s the first day of school. At least we can show up at a reasonable time.”
As part of its Renaissance Schools turnaround initiative, the School District of Philadelphia has outsourced management of 17 struggling public schools over the past three years.
The result is a transformed educational landscape in which a patchwork of seven independent charter school management organizations has replaced the traditional school system in large sections of the city, as shown in this graphic by NewsWorks, the Notebook, and geospace analysis firm Azavea.
Asked what “portfolio management” means to him, Jerry Jordan’s answer was swift and certain:
“Big business. Outsourcing. It’s literally getting rid of public service,” said the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
But when asked about the PFT’s strategy for slowing a trend that has seen thousands of teaching jobs shifted to non-union charter schools, Jordan’s answer was more general: “We have to work more closely with the parents and the people in the community in order to make sure our schools are funded adequately. We can’t survive another billion-dollar cut.”
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.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (PDE) and the School District are continuing to investigate possible cheating on standardized tests at 53 District schools, based on damaging forensic evidence – primarily answer sheets from 2009, 2010, and 2011 that show statistically improbable numbers of wrong-to-right erasures.