portfolio pushback

As L.A. teachers threaten to strike, union leaders are fighting a controversial school reform strategy

Teachers and supporters of public education march against education funding cuts during the March for Public Education in Los Angeles, California on December 15, 2018. The rally, organized by United Teachers Los Angeles, drew thousands of educators who demanded wage increases and smaller class sizes. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If Los Angeles teachers go on strike this week or next, it won’t just be about dollars and cents — it will be part of a broader fight over the role of charter schools and an obscure but influential school reform idea.

“This approach, drawn from Wall Street, is called the ‘portfolio’ model, and it has been criticized for having a negative effect on student equity and parent inclusion,” teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed Monday.

The district says it’s not pursuing that approach, which relies on giving parents lots of school choices, including charter schools; giving power to school leaders; and holding schools accountable for test scores and graduation rates.

But there are other indications from the district’s leader, the consultants it’s hired, and school board members that Los Angeles Unified is considering similar ideas. As a strike looms in the country’s second-largest school district, Caputo-Pearl’s statements mean that particular debate over how city schools should operate is getting more attention than ever.

“They have the floor; they have the mic,” said Julie Marsh, a University of Southern California professor who has studied L.A. schools, of the teachers union. “They are trying to advocate for all the things they care about.”  

For United Teachers Los Angeles, that includes stopping the growth of charter schools, which are tied closely to the portfolio model. Instead of dictating how schools should be run, school boards should contract out their management to outside groups, portfolio advocates believe. The term “portfolio” came from comparing a school board to an investment manager.

“School boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones,” Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor who developed the idea, wrote in 2006.

A number of cities — including Denver, Indianapolis, Newark, and New Orleans — have adopted major aspects of the model. But it remains controversial, particularly because it often means expanding non-unionized charter schools and closing district schools that become under-enrolled or are seen as unsuccessful.

In Los Angeles, the new superintendent Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor and investment banker, is working on a restructuring plan that the district is calling “Reimagining Los Angeles Unified.”

“That model has nothing to do with the Reimagining effort,” a district spokesperson said of the portfolio model.

What Beutner has said is that principals and schools need more autonomy. The L.A. Times has reported that the superintendent’s plan would divide the district into 32 local networks.

“So [if] it’s the flexibility of charter schools that’s allowing them to excel, let’s bring that flexibility into the traditional school classroom,” Beutner said in December. “All schools should be looked at with the same tough set of standards.”

And the district has hired the consulting firm Kitamba, which has helped districts implement portfolio-style strategies, to work on the reorganization plan, using money from private philanthropies, including the pro-charter Broad Foundation.

In a 2018 presentation obtained by Chalkbeat, Kitamba highlighted its work launching unified district-charter enrollment systems, new funding formulas, and new ways of measuring school performance for districts nationwide. The document is not specific to Los Angeles and does not discuss plans for the district.

“In no way does this represent what Kitamba is actually doing for Los Angeles Unified,” said LAUSD spokesperson Janelle Erickson. She did not offer details on Kitamba’s work for the district.

The district already has some aspects of the portfolio model in place. About 20 percent of public school students in Los Angeles attend a charter school, with LAUSD authorizing nearly 300 charters. A number of district schools are run by a nonprofit known as the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

A previous superintendent, John Deasy, allowed charter and nonprofit groups to compete to take over struggling schools or start new ones. (Research would later find that students in those schools saw their test scores drop, then bounce back.)

But during contract negotiations in 2011, the union won a guarantee that schools in the program had to employ unionized district staff — effectively ending the role of charters. And Los Angeles does not have a common enrollment system for district and charter schools.

“Despite Superintendent Deasy’s efforts, the parallel systems of an independent charter sector and a traditional school district remained intact,” Marsh and other researchers wrote in a forthcoming study.

That means there is still plenty for Los Angeles to do, portfolio supporters say — namely combining enrollment systems and intervening in or closing low-performing schools.

The local advocacy group Great Public Schools Now, which is backed by pro-charter philanthropies, is pushing for a portfolio approach. It’s already given additional funding to high-achieving district and charter schools, in line with helping successful schools grow and replicate.

“To the extent that our expansion creates the urgent need for [district] realignment and closures, I think we would be very supportive of that,” Myrna Castrejón, Great Public Schools Now’s then-president, told Chalkbeat in 2017.

Great Public Schools Now has worked closely with a number of school board members, according to emails obtained by Chalkbeat last month. That includes Nick Melvoin, who was elected with the support of charter school advocates.

“Schools shouldn’t necessarily be things we think of in perpetuity if they’re not serving kids,” Melvoin told Chalkbeat in December. He said he’s pushing for a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools.

(Research on the portfolio model is limited and has produced mixed results. Studies in Los Angeles have found that charter schools generally outperform district schools on state tests. At the same time, a study of California charter schools showed that they improved substantially after they unionized.)

The union’s concerns about charter schools and the portfolio model are not a focus of its contract demands, but they are deeply wrapped up in their members’ rationale for striking. That strike could happen as early as Thursday.

“These are issues that drive to the heart of the future of public education,” said Daniel Barnhart, a UTLA vice president. “Teachers are no longer simply thinking about the narrow confines of what is in a contract.”

That suggests a disconnect between the district and the union that is far broader — and more significant — than any particulars in the contract.

Public sympathy for teachers nationwide at the moment could put charter advocates in an awkward position if teachers do strike, noted Janelle Scott, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There really does seem to be a general sense of support for public school teachers and the kinds of difficulties of their work, their working conditions,” she said. At the same time, “There is a general risk of a strike, which is that the community turns against you.”

Meanwhile, another high-stakes showdown is soon set to take place over Los Angeles schools: a special election to fill the seventh seat on the divided school board in March. The last set of LAUSD races were the most expensive school board elections in U.S. history.

NO DEAL

Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.

counter-point

Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.