Empty classroom with no students (Globalstock/iStock)

This is the third and last in a series of posts about a movement to privatize public education in Indiana, home state of Vice President  Pence.

The first piece looked at the roots of the education “reform” movement in the state — which has the largest single private-school voucher program in the country. The second post discussed the misuse of public tax dollars in the state’s charter and voucher sector as well as Pence’s role in the expansion of vouchers.  This piece looks at what is going on now in the state and investigates what is called the “portfolio” model of school reform.

The post below was written by Darcie Cimarusti, communications director for the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for public education.  NEP and the nonprofit Schott Foundation for Public Education recently issued a report assessing how far the movement to privatize public education has gone in this country.

Indiana was ranked 46th — of 50 states plus the District of Columbia — meaning that it is further along the privatization track than most other places in the country. For privatization advocates, that ranking would be looked upon favorably. For advocates of public education, it isn’t.

The Journal Gazette in Indiana wrote a July 8 editorial about that report, saying in part:

Indiana’s dismal record for oversight of online charter schools is one reason it earned its own failing grade in a report evaluating the extent to which states divert money from traditional public schools to private schools and charter schools operated by for-profit management companies. The survey, by the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation, which might be easily dismissed as biased except that its findings are irrefutable, notes:

• Indiana has three separate programs designed to funnel tax dollars from public schools, at a conservative estimate of $171 million a year. “Indiana law has continued to morph over the years so that prior enrollment in a public school is no longer needed to receive a voucher for private school,” wrote Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “That means that taxpayers are now funding private school tuition previously paid for by parents.”

• Private schools receiving tax dollars are allowed to discriminate against students for whom English is not their first language by not providing services and can discriminate in enrollment on the basis of religion. “It is a system in which the school, not the parent, does the choosing.” Burris wrote in an email.

• Failing charter schools have been allowed to convert to voucher schools, so that they can “continue indefinitely,” Burris wrote.

The piece below, as noted earlier, looks at the “portfolio” model of school reform, which is not new but has been gaining traction in dozens of cities. What is that? It is a shift away from a traditional school district in which a centralized administration runs a system of publicly funded schools and instead has a central office which oversees a collection, or portfolio, of schools that can include traditional public schools as well as privately managed schools. Supporters say it allows more flexibility for educators and gives more options to parents, while detractors say that it is really aimed at turning traditional public schools into privately run entities.

A 2016 paper on the portfolio model from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education said this (with footnotes removed):

The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor — the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. When reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration. In theory, this process of closing, rebidding and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing. These approaches have been described (positively) as “creative destruction” or (negatively) as “churn.”

The portfolio district idea is primarily the brainchild of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and it has caught fire. The CRPE website lists 39 districts as members of its portfolio-strategy network, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Denver.  Additional districts such as Newark and Washington, D.C., have implemented similar approaches.

Generally speaking, four reform strategies are combined, in varying degrees, in portfolio districts: (1) performance-based (generally test-based) accountability, (2) school-level decentralization of management, (3) the reconstitution or closing of “failing” schools, and (4) the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools. CRPE adds pupil-based funding, more flexible use of human capital, and capacity building. Also, for the portfolio metaphor to work, the central office must play an active management role, which means that highly deregulated districts like New Orleans are problematic implementations.

While proponents of portfolio districts emphasize community involvement, governmental authorization lies in state capitals and local school boards are typically shunted aside, leading to the objection that the policies are a power play about “money and power and control.” State-level advocacy for these policies, moreover, has often been misleading, and characterized by spin and cherry-picked data. Yet given the struggles of students in urban school districts, no proposal should be easily dismissed — so the question remains about whether the portfolio idea might be structured in ways that advance societal goals.

Here is the third of three pieces about school reform in Indiana:

By Darcie Cimarusti

When schools reopen in Indianapolis, Indiana in July, the doors of three legacy high schools will remain shuttered. The Indianapolis Public School (IPS) board voted last fall to close them after six months of raucous meetings where community members accused the board and superintendent of ignoring community concerns. Like many school closures, the recent shuttering of what were once three great high schools would disproportionately impact low-income children of color.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee cited budget concerns and declining enrollment throughout the district as justification. But as the traditional public high schools the community fought to keep open were closed, the district opened a charter high school co-founded by  Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and education reform stalwart.

Daniels, now president of Purdue University and a founder of Purdue Polytechnic High School, spoke to the inaugural class of 159 students on their first day of school, July 31, 2017. Before Daniels’s new high school had even completed its first year, the Indianapolis Charter School Board approved the charter’s request to open an additional location.

The second Purdue Polytechnic High School wants to take over the Broad Ripple High School building, one of the schools the IPS board closed just last year. IPS hopes to put the facility on the market for $6 million to $8 million to fill the growing budget hole that led to the closures in the first place. But there are other factors at play that may prevent that, including a current Indiana state law that requires school districts to allow charter schools to lease or buy an empty school building for $1.

Why are treasured public assets being turned over to unproven charter operators against the will of many people in the community?

Because IPS subscribes to the “portfolio model” of education reform — a controversial model of school reform first implemented in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, that has since spread to cities such as Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colorado.

What is the portfolio model? Diane Ravitch, education historian and public school advocate, who is president of the Network for Public Education, describes it  as a school board treating their schools as if they were a stock portfolio. “If a school is not performing well, turn it over to private management. Buy and sell schools as you would buy and sell stocks in a portfolio. Disruption? No problem. Chaos? No problem.”

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis, Indiana based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, brought the portfolio model to IPS. Over $80 million in local and national foundation money has poured into the Mind Trust’s coffers since 2006, with the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the John and Laura Arnold Foundation joining the local foundations already supporting Indianapolis’s portfolio model.

In this 2016 video recorded for the Mind Trust, titled “Why National Funders are Investing in Indianapolis,” Texas hedge fund billionaire and former Enron trader John Arnold claimed he was drawn to the Mind Trust because it is trying to do school reform “from the community level,” but those critical of the Mind Trust’s role in IPS disagree.

One of the most vocal critics of the Mind Trust is Jim Scheurich, professor of urban education studies and coordinator of the Urban Education Studies Doctoral Program at IUPUI, a public research university in Indianapolis formally known as Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis. He rejects the notion that the Mind Trust is “reforming” the public education system in IPS. Scheurich uses language that is far more blunt and to the point. He calls its brand of reform the destroy public education model.

Scheurich asserts that the Mind Trust appropriates community-oriented language to “portray itself as a local community effort dedicated to the local community” when in fact the Mind Trust is part of a national movement to privatize and profit off public education.

David Harris is the founder and former CEO of the Mind Trust. Harris’s reform career began in the late 90s, working for Bart Peterson’s campaign for mayor of Indianapolis and serving as his education policy adviser once he was elected. In 2000, Harris wrote a speech for Peterson, titled “Why We Need Charters,” which Peterson delivered to 11 Marion County superintendents. The speech wasn’t well received by the educational leaders, but it firmly positioned Peterson on the issue.

In 2001, charter school legislation was passed in Indiana, and thanks to Harris’s lobbying, Peterson was made the first mayor in the nation with the authority to authorize charters. Harris was named the state’s charter schools chief, reviewing applications and making recommendations to Mayor Peterson. By 2002, the state’s first three charter schools opened.

While still employed by the city of Indianapolis, Harris came up with a plan to “create a venture capital fund to greenlight new school-reform nonprofits,” and in 2006, the Mind Trust was born. The Indianapolis Star editorial board praised Harris’s plan, writing, “The Mind Trust has done this city a tremendous favor with today’s release of its dramatic plan to overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools.”

With millions of dollars from local foundations, specifically the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and the Lilly Endowment, the Mind Trust enticed national reform entities to Indianapolis, including Teach For America, the New Teacher Project and Stand for Children.

With the arrival of Oregon-based Stand For Children, Indianapolis school board elections started to take on a decidedly different tenor. Until 2010, a few thousand dollars was all that was needed to win a seat. That all changed when Stand For Children, an education reform 501(c)(4), started pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the 2012 elections. Stand’s tax return that year reported that the election of three Indianapolis school board members was a top accomplishment for the organization.

In 2013, reform-minded Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was appointed, and Stand for Children endorsed and financially supported additional candidates in 2014 and 2016, ensuring a pro-reform board majority to support Ferebee and the Mind Trust’s agenda.

Stand for Children also spent $473,172 lobbying Indiana lawmakers on Public Law 1321, which was passed in 2014. Public Law 1321 was based on a 2013 model policy drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch-funded member organization of corporate lobbyists and conservative state legislators who craft “model legislation” on issues important to them and then help shepherd it through legislatures. Public Law 1321 allows Indianapolis and other districts across the state to create Innovation Network Schools — schools that are overseen by the school district but managed by private operators. These include privately operated charter schools that gain instant access to existing public buildings and resources.

IPS opened the first Innovation Network school in 2015. Fast-forward to 2018, and the district website lists 20 Innovation Schools in total. The Mind Trust has “incubated” and helped IPS open many  of those Innovation Schools, including Daniels’s Purdue Polytechnic High School, with seven more schools in the pipeline.

While the Mind Trust and Stand for Children would have Indianapolis residents believe these reforms are community-driven, in essence, the influence they wield over IPS and the school board is not dissimilar to what happens when a state takes over a school district. The Mind Trust and its web of connections in the statehouse, the mayor’s office, the Chamber of Commerce and countless other high-level organizations, institutions and foundations, both around the city and nationally, determine much of what happens in IPS.

But the longer the Mind Trust operates in the city, the clearer it becomes that these forces are focused on turning IPS schools over to private operators, and often the operators selected by the Mind Trust fail to demonstrate levels of student success higher than the schools they are tapped to replace.

For example, the Mind Trust recruited Matchbook Learning and named it a 2017 Innovation School Fellow, awarding founder Sajan George $400,000 to develop a turnaround school plan for IPS.

George, a favorite son of the national reform crowd, also received start-up funds from The NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation Next Generation Learning Challenges. He was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Federation for Children (AFC), the school choice juggernaut founded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when AFC’s conference was held in Indianapolis last year.

Matchbook Learning calls itself a “national nonprofit charter school turnaround management organization,” but in 2017 it operated only two schools — Merit Prep in Newark, New Jersey and Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit, Michigan. Both of Matchbook’s schools were hybrid charters, where students learn in a brick-and-mortar building but receive the majority of their instruction virtually. Both were closed by the end of the 2016-17 school year for lack of growth and poor performance.

Hybrids such as Matchbook have performed no better in the state of Indiana. An Indiana State Board of Education evaluation of performance data from the 2016 and 2017 school years concluded that “students in virtual and hybrid charter schools do not perform as well as those in brick-and-mortar charter schools.” In 2017 there were five hybrid charters in the state, and according to the state’s own grading system, two hybrid schools received D’s, and the other 3 received F’s.

Matchbook Learning, thanks to the support of the Mind Trust, was granted a charter by the Indianapolis Charter School Board, and selected by the IPS board to “restart” Wendell Phillips School 63.

At School 63, 85 percent of students were black or Hispanic, and 76 percent of students qualified for the federal free-lunch program for children from low-income families. The school was identified as “underperforming” after five years of F’s using the same grading system that gave hybrid charter schools such as Matchbook D and F grades as well.

Despite Matchbook’s history of failure in two different states, and the abysmal performance of hybrid charters across Indiana, only one board member voted against Matchbook’s takeover of School 63 — Elizabeth Gore. Gore, elected to the board in 2016, is the only currently seated board member elected without the financial support of Stand for Children.

“I refuse to turn over the school to a company that obviously has problems to an academic program that I feel has no accountability, a record or sustainability for improving children’s academic growth,” Gore said.

The 2018 election looks like it is shaping up to potentially derail the vision of Indianapolis as a national model for the reform movement. With three of seven seats up for election, and Elizabeth Gore demonstrating she’s not afraid to vote against the Stand for Children-beholden board majority, the balance of power on the board could easily shift.

Candidates need not declare their intention to run for the board until August, but Jim Scheurich has already announced his candidacy for the board’s at-large seat. Scheurich serves as the president of the IPS Community Coalition, a grass-roots organization founded a year and a half ago to debate the agenda of the Stand for Children-funded IPS board members. Critics of Stand for Children expect that with Scheurich on the ballot, the organization will probably top previous spending levels on the at-large seat race in an attempt to defeat him.

Scheurich’s board run comes just after it was revealed that Superintendent Ferebee may be looking for another job, and David Harris’s announcement that he’s leaving The Mind Trust to lead a national reform organization.

(Corrections: An earlier version said that an Indiana law would require a public school building to be turned over to a charter school for $1 but it is still unclear what will happen to the school building. Also, David Harris is a former CEO of The Mind Trust, not the current CEO; the Mind Trust’s donations have been since 2006, not 2016; David Harris worked for the city of Indianapolis, not the state.)