Pitfalls with school choice in Chicago, other districts

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A new report by The Center on Reinventing Public Education strikes an optimistic note on the emergence of “portfolio schools”—that is, charter and charter-like schools—in Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Washington DC. But the report also offers a long list of potential pitfalls—from the evaporation of philanthropic dollars to shifting political terrain—that threatens any well-oiled network of autonomous school options.

The center is a research collective at the University of Washington that generally takes a constructively critical view of school choice and district decentralization efforts. In this report, the researchers offer little in the way of evaluation of each city’s portfolio initiatives, but they do serve up a good reference tool for understanding the differences in scale and scope of major reform efforts in the country’s hotspots for urban educational change.

But the authors do knock Chicago for limiting its portfolio approach to new schools started under the Renaissance 2010 initiative. The city’s inability to take to scale per-pupil budgeting also draws fire, and Chicago’s experiment with local school councils gets short shrift.

A new report by The Center on Reinventing Public Education strikes an optimistic note on the emergence of “portfolio schools”—that is, charter and charter-like schools—in Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Washington DC. But the report also offers a long list of potential pitfalls—from the evaporation of philanthropic dollars to shifting political terrain—that threatens any well-oiled network of autonomous school options.

The center is a research collective at the University of Washington that generally takes a constructively critical view of school choice and district decentralization efforts. In this report, the researchers offer little in the way of evaluation of each city’s portfolio initiatives, but they do serve up a good reference tool for understanding the differences in scale and scope of major reform efforts in the country’s hotspots for urban educational change.

But the authors do knock Chicago for limiting its portfolio approach to new schools started under the Renaissance 2010 initiative. The city’s inability to take to scale per-pupil budgeting also draws fire, and Chicago’s experiment with local school councils gets short shrift.

Community-based school councils in Chicago, site-based management in Miami, uniform curriculum and instructional methods in San Diego, and a succession of reform approaches in D.C. have all created hope for a while. Though supporters of these reforms could claim with some justification that they hadn’t been fully tried—that results would improve with more time and better implementation—local politics and inconsistent funding rendered such initiatives unsustainable.

Another red flag identified by researchers is the impact that limited transportation systems and poorly run selection procedures can have on school choice and access for some parents. That should be an important area of concern in Chicago where the recent lifting of the desegregation consent decree has thrown school application rules and spending on busing into question.

Along these lines, a Catalyst report found that African American students were more likely to “opt” for lower performing schools in Chicago.

The report makes note of student safety issues in urban districts that experiment with school choice. But Chicago’s woes with shifting gang boundaries and youth violence deserves more attention.

The Portfolio School Districts for Big Cities: An Interim Report is available at www.crpe.org. The complete report is due in 2011.