Can the portfolio strategy in New Orleans still fog a mirror, or is it dead as Jay Greene has just announced? It looks pretty lively, with all public school kids in charter schools and results improving steadily.
Jay is wrong about the death of portfolio and the reasons that drove the return of schools to local control. Under state law, the Recovery School District’s oversight of New Orleans charter schools had to be reconsidered every five years. It was never designed to be permanent. While union opposition to chartering and new schools has been a constant, majority support for the new bill was based on discomfort with long-term state takeover, not on substantive opposition to the post-Katrina school system.
But Jay could become right in the future. Though portfolio in New Orleans is not dead or even visibly weakened, it could expire if nothing is done to sustain it.
The local control bill is not perfect. Reformers worked to create a new law that prevents a return to district-operated schools and protects charters’ freedoms. A stronger bill might have passed earlier, before the election of the current Democratic governor. But this one can work if charter operators assert the rights the bill gives them, parents continue demanding choice and punish elected officials who try to take it away, and reformers don’t let unions and other anti-reform groups have their way with the elected board.
That’s the way it goes in a democracy. A victory (e.g., the 2005 RSD takeover of the schools, and yes, the new local control law) is never permanent but must be built on and defended. Groups with other interests will always try to tear it down, and supporters will defect if the winners don’t deliver as promised.
Anti-reformers will campaign for election to the new board, and some elected members will try to exceed their powers so they can dictate to schools and create opportunities for patronage. Current charter operators could also try to dominate the board, protecting weak schools and blocking innovative new providers. (See our blog about this possibility in NOLA.) To counter such efforts from all sides, reformers will need to use all the leverage the new law gives them, including appeal to the state board when required.
The good news is that the RSD has helped to organize new groups—charter operators and parents with expanded options—that are incentivized to defend what they have.
Jay suggests that centralized governance—i.e., dependence on one local board to judge charter school applications and decide which existing charters will be sustained or closed when their terms expire—is destined to fail. He prefers two alternatives with no citywide gatekeeper: multiple independent authorizers or a publicly funded but unregulated voucher scheme. But gatekeeper-free options have their own gaping liabilities: they are easy on school start-ups but lack good mechanisms to close weak schools or address emergent equity issues that demand a response.
None of this is theoretical. Jay’s vision of a regulatory marketplace is currently in place in Ohio, Minnesota, and Michigan, where multiple authorizers and “light regulation” are the norm. The results have been worsening inequalities, widespread mediocrity, too many schools seeking to educate some kids, and too few offering good alternatives to the most disadvantaged.
Just like the portfolio strategy, these “no gatekeeper” approaches are vulnerable to loss of public support if schools don’t work for kids. The same kinds of provider self-discipline and political organization required to sustain a portfolio strategy would be required to preserve vouchers and multi-authorizer systems. Compared to portfolio they are also much more likely to be re-regulated via civil rights lawsuits if school entrepreneurs mislead parents or discriminate in admissions.
Try as we all might, nobody—not even Jay—can exempt publicly funded K-12 education from the realities of politics. The best that laws and program designs can do is to buttress choice and school freedom of action against casual political attacks. No arrangement is strong enough to survive complacency on the part of its supporters and beneficiaries.
We wish the new local control law had gone further, as described in our book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education. But as it stands, it is enough to sustain life for an innovative, constantly improving portfolio of schools in New Orleans. The future depends on whether local reformers keep their heads in the game and national reformers continue to support them.