Portfolio Management Districts and Rebuilding Inequality

Article excerpt

Despite over 50 years of near-constant education reform movements in the United States, most attempts at improving outcomes in urban public schools have met with "predictable failure" (Sarason, 1990). The recently coined term "Portfolio Management Models" (Bulkley, Henig, & Levin, 2010) describes a new approach to citywide governance in which the district serves as a coordinator of public education services, rather than as the single provider of these services. In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, schools may be run by a variety of groups, including national and local charter operators as well as the local or state governments. In these cases, the district functions like a financial investment adviser, readjusting the portfolio of schools in the city by authorizing promising new schools, closing low-performing ones, and regularly evaluating school performance. This model of governance, coupled with school choice and standards-based accountability policies, seems likely to ensure the end of poor-testing schools. This is an intended consequence of portfolio management, and a compelling one at that. But all changes also have unintended consequences (Fink, 2003) that may be difficult to anticipate and thus prepare for.

Previous research in post-Katrina New Orleans schools (Beabout, 2008) confirms that increased inequality is one such unintended consequence of the portfolio management model. The mechanisms by which inequality has emerged in New Orleans' "portfolioized" school system include: selectivity in charter schools, pedagogical admissions requirements, uneven special education staffing, and selective marketing. Those districts currently employing portfolio models of management, and the many others that are watching from the sidelines (e.g., Detroit, Memphis) must consider the impact of increased inequality between schools if portfolio management is to avoid joining the long list of failed reforms of the past.

"Selective" Charter Schools

The vast majority of charter schools in New Orleans, although not all, are open-admission schools that do not use previous test scores or grades in making admissions decisions. There are, however, a number of ways in which these schools can mold their incoming student populations. Under portfolio management models, schools have an incentive to admit or retain those students who are likely to score highly on tests, because achievement scores are the primary data point that is used to make the high-stakes decisions on school closure or renewal (Lubienski, Gulosino, & Weitzel, 2009).

One form of selectivity is the inclusion of specific discipline policies that prohibit re-enrollment for students receiving a certain number of suspensions or other infractions during the school year. While some students may, in fact, be better served in another setting, this type of discipline policy creates a flow that directs challenging students out of charter schools and into other schools with available seats. If magnet schools and popular charter schools are already over-enrolled (which is often the case), these students are relegated to the least in-demand schools (in New Orleans, these are the state-run Recovery District schools), leading to increased inequality.

Furthermore, charter schools are often able to limit class sizes to favorable pupil-teacher ratios. When the upper limits of these ratios are reached, students are referred back to the district, which is legally obligated to place the students in a less-popular school that still has available seats. Again, this creates an outflow of students from in-demand schools to less in-demand schools. Those who lack the social capital to navigate the enrollment process (which, in New Orleans, begins in January for the following fall) are not full participants in school choice, but rather are being funneled to schools that have been picked over by other "choosers" (Goldring & Hausman, 1999). …