the portfolio push

40 cities in 10 years: Leaked presentation offers more details on new group’s goals to spread charter (and charter-like) schools

Students enter the building on the first day of school at Denver's McGlone Academy on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The new organization aiming to spread a mix of charter schools, school autonomy, and unified enrollment across the country wants to reach 5 percent of low-income students in the U.S. within five years, according to a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

The City Fund, whose formation was announced late last month, has already amassed over $200 million and a well-connected staff, making it poised to influence education policy in cities across the country.

The full presentation, used a few months ago to pitch potential funders, offers the most detailed available blueprint of the group’s goals and strategies, which include expanding charter schools or charter-like alternatives. Known as the “portfolio model,” it’s a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools. The academic success of the approach remains hotly debated.

“Our goal is to make the model normal,” the presentation says. “After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”

Neerav Kingsland, the managing partner of The City Fund, declined to comment on most details in the document or offer additional information about the group’s funders, but said “nothing dramatic” has changed since the presentation was used.

The City Fund’s pitch: Spreading the Denver, D.C., and New Orleans model

The presentation opens by declaring that “very little works in education reform,” citing an analysis of nearly 200 randomized trials in education.

The group contrasts that to more recent results in Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, three cities that “have broken through with dramatic and sustained gains for all children,” it says. The presentation also cites Indianapolis, Camden, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and Newark as already adopting strategies it prefers. Texas, too, is promoting those ideas through its state education department.

“Given this momentum, we believe that in the next five years we can scale the model to reach ~2% of all United States students and ~5% of low-income students,” it reads.

The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”

The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.

One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”

The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.

Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.

From 2022 on, the group hopes to influence “every major city in America,” growing by a couple of cities each year, the presentation says. (“If I had to rewrite that slide I would say, ‘if evidence and demand follows,’” Kingsland said in an interview. “We really aren’t going to expand if the evidence isn’t there.”)

In seven to 10 years, the group hopes to get to 30 to 40 cities.

How will The City Fund make that happen?

Deploying its leaders to speak and blog, convening sympathetic policymakers and advocates, and partnering with groups, including low-income parent organizers, are some of the strategies the presentation lists.

Money will also be a key source of influence.

City Fund says initial investments will be around  $15 to 25 million for the first three years in each one of a carefully selected group of cities poised to fully adopt the model. Most of that money will flow to local groups, where City Fund leaders will sit on the boards of directors. After seven to 10 years, The City Fund plans to exit a city, allowing the group to spread to new ones and “enabling national scaling.”

The group will have substantial resources to draw from. As Chalkbeat previously reported, the presentation says the group has raised over $200 million and that its first investors are Laura and John Arnold and Reed Hastings.

What we still don’t know: where it will go, who else is funding it, and whether it will work

The presentation leaves some crucial questions unanswered.

For instance, who else is funding the effort besides the Arnolds and Hastings? Kingsland wouldn’t say, but The City Fund recently netted a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) A spokesperson for the foundation said the grant was for four years and intended to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in” the district.

A spokesperson for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said that it also would be funding The City Fund, though declined to say how much money had been awarded, saying final details were still being worked out.

Spokespeople for the Walton Family Foundation and Bezos Family Foundation both said their groups have not supported The City Fund.

Another question: What cities does the group plan to spend its money on? The presentation doesn’t say, though some other signs have emerged.

The Gates Foundation grant is specifically targeted for Oakland, which recently adopted a plan approximating the portfolio model. City Fund staff members already sit on the boards of local organizations with similar agendas in Baton Rouge, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washington D.C, though it’s not clear if that means those will be target cities.

The Arnold Foundation, whose education philanthropy is now routed through The City Fund, has previously invested in portfolio efforts in Atlanta, Camden, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

As expected for a group raising money, the presentation paints an optimistic picture of the success of its strategy, pointing to research showing substantial academic gains in New Orleans after that district’s structural overhaul post-Hurricane Katrina. The presentation doesn’t include the fact that those gains also came with a sustained infusion of both public and philanthropic dollars — nearly $1,500 per pupil compared to similar districts in the state. That’s striking, since the presentation suggests that no new public money is necessary to realize such improvements elsewhere.

The pitch also doesn’t mention studies of the approach that have found more tepid results, like a recent one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district previously led by one of the City Fund partners, Chris Barbic. (Kingsland has acknowledged those results in a blog post, saying “I thought the ASD charter effort would work. … Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions.”)

And in claiming that little in education reform has been successful, the group doesn’t refer to  research on school integration and increased school funding, which have generally found positive effects.

(Kingsland argued the effects of more school spending are small, pointing to one widely-cited national study, and said he supports school integration but questions “its scalability.”)

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist whose work showing test score gains in New Orleans was cited in the City Fund presentation, said he didn’t believe the additional money was the main driver of those improvements. But he is skeptical the New Orleans approach could be replicated without the extra resources.

“We don’t know how much money mattered, but given how much money seems to matter in other places, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest we can do this on the cheap and get these kinds of results,” he said.

Want to learn more about the portfolio model? We’ve written about the ideas and people behind the approach; the research on the model; and efforts to put it in place in Kansas City and Oakland

the portfolio push

With big names and $200 million, a new group is forming to push for the ‘portfolio model’

An advisory period in a classroom at Washington Latin Public Charter School, in Northwest Washington, D.C. (Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Since this story published, Chalkbeat has obtained a presentation by The City Fund, which offers additional details on the group’s approach and goals. Read the latest story here.

Several big names in education reform are teaming up to start a new organization designed to change how schools are managed in cities across the U.S. — and they say they’ve already raised $200 million.

The City Fund, as the group is being called, will push cities to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy. It represents a big increase in visibility and influence for advocates of the “portfolio model” of running schools, a strategy that’s been adopted by cities like New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis.

The group was announced Tuesday morning on the blog of Neerav Kingsland, who leads education giving at The Laura and John Arnold Foundation. According to a separate presentation created by the group and viewed by Chalkbeat, The City Fund has already raised over $200 million; Kingsland’s blog names the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund as the group’s “anchor funders.” It’s unclear if the organization has raised additional funds.

Although the group is likely to start in a small number of cities, that presentation also made its ambitions clear: it aspires to eventually be in “every city in America.”

Others involved include Chris Barbic of the Arnold Foundation; Kevin Huffman, the former Tennessee education chief; David Harris, who previously led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group; and Ethan Gray, the president of the nonprofit Education Cities.

“We believe that school systems can succeed when schools operate with autonomy while being held accountable for strong student results,” the group said in a job posting, which has since been taken down.

The group will be advocating for a brand of school reform that has gained traction in a number of cities, but remains controversial.

The basic idea is that families should be able to choose among different schools, and that those schools should be free to operate as they see fit. In addition, schools should be held accountable for their performance — largely based on test scores — with good ones growing and bad ones closing, while an oversight body coordinates essential functions like enrollment across schools.

Cities that have adopted much or all of this portfolio approach include Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, as well as Camden and Newark, New Jersey. In each of those cities, charter schools have expanded rapidly. Some of those cities also have a hybrid, where district schools are granted charter-like autonomy or charter operators take over district schools.

“Cities across the country are constantly innovating, and when a few cities do something that seems to be working, philanthropy can help shine a light on these local successes,” the group’s blog post says.

The City Fund’s founders have experience with those cities. Kingsland ran New Schools for New Orleans, a group that coordinated education advocacy and philanthropy in that city after Hurricane Katrina. As Tennessee commissioner, Huffman helped create the state’s Achievement School District, which Barbic ran and which turned district schools over to charters. Harris led the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis group that influenced the education strategy of the city’s central district. Gray’s Education Cities has spent the last several years convening local nonprofits pushing these ideas in two dozen cities.

But Education Cities’ budget was around $3 million in 2016. The City Fund’s aspirations — and budget — appear to be much bigger.

If the $200 million figure is designed to last for several years, The City Fund would remain significantly smaller than the biggest players in education philanthropy, though large enough to make an impact. The Walton Foundation spent about $191 million on U.S. education in just 2016, for example, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent about $367 million.

The group has indicated that it plans to influence local organizations by providing funding, obtaining seats on their boards of directors, offering strategic advice, and convening groups from different cities, according to people familiar with their plans.

These local “quarterback” organizations, as they’re sometimes called, are designed to be the nonprofit hub of a city’s portfolio strategy — doling out grants to grow schools seen as successful, seeding groups that influence school board elections, creating and advocating for new policies like unified enrollment systems.

Its approach is sure to face fierce pushback — and already has in many cities.

Skeptics of charter schools will surely oppose this effort to expand charters and other schools not governed by a school board; they’ll also likely see it as an attempt to weaken teachers unions. Indeed, some advocates for the model say that a key goal is to limit the power of teachers groups by growing schools where teachers aren’t unionized.

Across the country, charter school expansion has drawn pushback as districts lose students and money, in some cases pushing schools to close. Nationally, polls indicate that support for charters has fallen, particularly among Democrats.

On the other side, free-market advocates see the portfolio model as actually limiting school choice, putting too much power in the hands of the “portfolio manager” and shutting down schools based on their test scores, rather than parent demand. In 2015, before she was Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos successfully led the opposition to an effort to create what amounted to a portfolio model in Detroit on those grounds.

Another major risk for the group is operating from a national perch with national funding.

This has tripped up advocates of the portfolio model before. In 2013, for instance, Gray of Education Cities released a plan to have Kansas City adopt the portfolio model if it were taken over by the state. The idea set off a firestorm and was never implemented, not least of all because it was being pushed by a national group with few ties to the city.

Advocates for the approach argue that it will help students in cities that have long struggled with academic performance, though the evidence of its effectiveness is limited and mixed.

Their argument has gotten both good news and bad news in recent weeks. While a new study showed substantial increases in high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion rates in the wake of school reforms in New Orleans, another found that the Tennessee turnaround district that Barbic led produced no gains in test scores even after five years.

“We’ll also work with university researchers to study these local efforts,” the blog post said. “If cities show progress, we hope other cities will follow. If they don’t, we hope other promising innovations are able to scale, so that all students can have access to amazing public schools.”

Education Cities itself is shifting focus, according to a message on its website Tuesday morning, as Gray and some staff members move to The City Fund. Education Cities will be supporting two new organizations, one aimed at advising school board members and the other aimed at helping education groups partner with communities.

Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that The City Fund had raised over $200 million dollars from the Arnold Foundation and Hastings Fund; however, it is not clear if the entirety of that money has come from those two funders.

research shows

Advocates of the portfolio model for improving schools say it works. Are they right?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Humes Middle School is one of the original six schools taken over by the state of Tennessee in 2012.

Author David Osborne is sure that his vision for improving schools is the right one: “If you discovered a cure for cancer, but it was politically difficult with your union, would you avoid it?”

Neerav Kingsland, another proponent of the idea known as the “portfolio” model, is also optimistic but more cautious. “There’s enough evidence to try it in eight to 10 cities and see if we get good results,” said Kingsland, who leads one foundation’s efforts to parcel out funding for the approach.

“This reform effort might work and so I think it’s really worth trying,” Kingsland said. “We just need to be sober with the evidence.”

As with many education policies, the portfolio model is gaining adherents even while an research base is still being built. Those philanthropists, nonprofit groups, and policymakers — like Kingsland at the Arnold Foundation and Osborne, on a multi-city book tour promoting the approach — are betting big on the idea that schools should be managed more like stocks in a portfolio, where successful ones should expand and failing ones should close.

They point to schools in New Orleans, Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C., cities that have embraced the model to varying degrees and have seen some education metrics tick up over the last several years.

Whether that amounts to an open-and-shut case for the model is less clear. Here’s a guide to what we do know, and how you can weigh the claims.

First, you should know: It’s difficult to study the portfolio approach, because it’s not a single idea.

Instead, it’s a package of policies that get grouped together, usually put in place across a whole district or city. That’s why comparing districts that have tried the portfolio approach to ones that haven’t is arguably the best approach for finding out whether it “worked.”

But school districts are complicated. Totally different policy changes, or shifting demographics like an influx of wealthier or poorer students, can affect districts too. Without controlling for all of that, a school district’s improvement doesn’t tell us much. That’s where rigorous research comes in.

But there is little or no rigorous research comparing gains in Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington D.C. to similar districts that have gone in a different direction. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked in those places — it’s just hard to know.

Second, the gains in New Orleans make a case for the portfolio model.

The city that has most clearly embraced the portfolio approach, New Orleans, has seen big academic achievement gains relative to other districts in the state.

PHOTO: Tulane University's Education Research Alliance
Student achievement in New Orleans increased relative to similar school districts.

These results were not because of changes in the types of students in the city, according to a Tulane study, and the effects were quite large — akin to seeing the average student in New Orleans gain 8 to 15 percentile points on state tests relative to other Louisiana students between 2007 and 2012. The package of policies also coincided a sharp increase in high school graduation and college attendance.

A national analysis also found that New Orleans students made large academic gains between 2009 and 2015. However, more recent test scores in the city have suggested that schools are backsliding somewhat.

But even those results don’t prove New Orleans’ academic success came from the portfolio model.

A significant share of the city’s academic gains seems to have come from closing low-performing schools. Less talked about — and generally not discussed as part of the portfolio approach — is the substantial infusion of money for schools. This was not just a one-time grant of cash to help schools rebuild: Even several years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans schools were spending nearly $1,500 more per student than districts that previously spent the same amount on their schools.

“In most of the places that are thinking about this [model], they’re not thinking, OK, let’s increase spending 15 percent the way they did in New Orleans,” said Doug Harris, the researcher who conducted the Tulane study.

That raises another question about the portfolio model: Even if it succeeded in New Orleans — a very specific context — is it likely to succeed elsewhere?

There’s helpful research on a few other cities. It comes to a mix of conclusions.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, one study found that the state’s takeover of the district led to substantial gains in math, modest improvements in English, and a growing share of students progressing through high school on schedule. The gains seem to have been driven in large part by expanded learning time, particularly small group tutoring over vacation breaks for certain students.

Lawrence’s approach included aspects of the portfolio model — including a focus on autonomy and accountability — but not others, like school choice.

In Newark, controversial reforms spurred by a $100 million gift from Mark Zuckerberg seem to have had mixed success. Five years later, schools in Newark have higher growth rates in English, but not in math, according to a recent Harvard study, which also found a decline in performance in both subjects in the first three years of change.

The changes in Newark included closing down low-scoring district schools, expanding higher-performing charters, and creating a common enrollment system. Efforts to shift students to better schools seem to have been successful, but existing schools often got worse.

Perhaps the most disappointing results for the portfolio approach come from Memphis. A Vanderbilt analysis found that a state takeover effort known as the Achievement School District failed to raise test scores, even as it was dubbed a “national exemplar” in implementing the portfolio model. Another approach known as the iZone, which granted other Tennessee schools more autonomy, did lead to improvements, according to the same study.

Most of these studies can’t definitively show which specific changes were more or less successful, though.

Studying the portfolio model as a whole is hard. So let’s separate the parts: We do know a lot about charter schools and where they work best (at raising test scores).

Research on charter schools is especially relevant, since the portfolio approach essentially aims to treat every school like a charter — and often leads to a growing charter sector.

A number of national studies show that their charter school students perform about the same as those in nearby district schools. Evidence on charter schools’ long-run impact is still thin.

But research focusing specifically on charters in cities and their impact on disadvantaged students paint a brighter picture. Most studies do show that, in that context, charters — particularly those in nonprofit, city-based networks — are more likely to boost test scores. That’s also been shown in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, and New York City.

Supporters of the portfolio model can point to these successes to support their approach, which is focused on cities. There are questions, though, about whether those charter schools perform well in part for reasons other than better teaching, like attracting more girls than boys, not filling empty seats in later grades, or getting substantial amounts of outside money.

School closures can help if students have better options.

The portfolio model emphasizes holding schools accountable for performance — which may mean closing them.

The research on closures has found that in some cases it helps students, in others it hurts them, and sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. Recently, a large national study found that closing low-achieving schools had no overall effect on the displaced students’ test scores.

However, there is strong evidence that, as happened in New Orleans, when students leave closed schools for ones with better test scores, their scores improve, too — and that is closely in line with the theory of portfolio advocates.

Whether school autonomy, another aspect of the portfolio model, really boosts learning is unclear.

On its own, giving district schools more authority over operations like staffing and curriculum has not been shown to consistently improve student learning. For instance, modest efforts along these lines in Boston and Denver haven’t boosted test scores. But results are more positive for Indianapolis’s “innovation schools” and Tennesse’s iZone, both instances where schools were granted additional freedom.

As for negative side effects like increasing segregation, there’s not a lot of research to go on.

Critics of the portfolio model say there will be negative consequences of the model, beyond any changes in test scores. Some of these — like the potential reduction in democratic control caused from letting outside operators runs schools — aren’t about data or research.

Does the portfolio model increase school segregation? Charter schools, which have often expanded in portfolio districts, have been shown in some cases to exacerbate segregation. In districts that have adopted the portfolio approach, the pattern isn’t clear: In New Orleans, the expansion of charters and the portfolio approach had little net effect on segregation, but charter schools in Indianapolis do seem to exacerbate segregation. In Denver the share of students who attend economically segregated schools has dropped moderately since 2012.

Does the portfolio model mean sweeping out veteran teachers of color and replacing them with white teachers? New Orleans has seen a significant decline in the share of black teachers — from about 70 percent to nearly 50 percent — in the wake of the changes, though the loss of black teachers has been seen in a number of other cities as well (including some that didn’t implement portfolio-style changes).

Are there other negative side effects? Some New Orleans principals have acknowledged pushing out low-performing students. (Policymakers have made efforts to address that, though there hasn’t been follow-up research to examine whether those changes have been successful.)

Another concern: expansion of charters in New Orleans coincided with a decline in the number of schools offering prekindergarten, which has been shown to benefit students in the long run.

One potential downside that doesn’t seem to have come to pass in New Orleans: an increase in students moving between schools, which can be disruptive. If anything, the opposite happened, and students changed schools less often.

This is the final part of a three-part series. Part one looks at the push to expand the portfolio model in cities across the country; part two examines how the portfolio movement has played out in one city.

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