national newsletter

The quiet revolution to remake urban schools

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country.

Read a story you think we should share? Have a tip? We’d love to hear from you — just reply to this email. And if you enjoy this, please forward to your friends and colleagues. The link to subscribe is here.

The big story

One important corner of the education reform world is currently fixated on Indianapolis.

That’s because the city’s main school district has remade itself in recent years, handing power to charter operators and working closely with outside nonprofits. The district’s job has transformed: Instead of directly running all of its schools, it oversees some of them, with the promise to close the ones that don’t succeed.

Denver, New Orleans, and Washington D.C. have also done that to varying degrees — and it’s hard go far without hearing calls for more cities to follow. There’s a lot of philanthropic and intellectual energy behind this “portfolio” approach right now, particularly as some left-of-center charter advocates try to carve out an alternative to Betsy DeVos’s free-market approach to school choice.

In a new story, we offer a look inside the portfolio playbook, and introduce you to Ethan Gray, the head of a group helping to take the approach national. And we’ll have more later this week, including a look at one group’s efforts in Kansas City and a deep dive into what the research says about the portfolio model.

Relatedly, Chalkbeat’s editor-in-chief Elizabeth Green is out with a review in The Atlantic of Eva Moskowitz’s new book, as well as David Osborne’s — which calls for urban districts to embrace the portfolio model. She highlights both the promise and peril of expanding charter schools at the rapid clip Moskowitz and Osborne are advocating. What’s concerning about the growing power of charter boards, she notes, is the potential for “squashing democracy.”

“Bequeathing power over the education of America’s children to a tiny group of ever more influential plutocrats means that the rest of us will have much less say in the direction of public schools than we do today,” she writes. She says the story was the scariest of her career to publish.

Local stories to watch

  • A voucher program in Colorado with national import just got axed. New school board members in Douglas County officially eliminated the district’s controversial voucher program. It had long been on hold because of court proceedings, but the end of the program could make the case, now pending before the state Supreme Court, moot. That would be a big blow to voucher advocates who had hoped it would make it to the U.S. Supreme Court and set a wider precedent.
  • Memphis’s “tent city,” where parents camp for days to win spots at the city’s most popular schools, is likely to end. But the process will still be first-come, first-served, raising questions about whether it will work any better for parents without flexible schedules.
  • New York City is adding more schools to its expensive turnaround program. It’s notable that the initiative — which focuses on out-of-school factors and marked a sharp departure from the previous mayor’s approach — is expanding, since it has produced only mixed results to date.
  • A Detroit program is taking a high-tech approach to improve early language skills. It involves having a recording device close to an infant’s chest to record 16 hours of noises — speaking, singing, crying, television.

Matt’s research roundup

School discipline reform in Philadelphia has been complicated. New research on the efforts to reduce suspensions there — part of a nationwide trend — paints a mixed picture. After the introduction of a policy discouraging suspensions, previously suspended students were less likely to be suspended again and less likely to be absent. But the study also finds some evidence that students in certain schools who weren’t suspended saw declines in achievement as a result.

The study is complicated by the fact that it’s unclear how much the policy mattered at all: suspensions did drop in Philadelphia relative to other districts in the state, but they had already been falling. Read the whole study here.

And, in case you missed it: We wrote about another important study on the same issue last week, showing that black students were slightly more likely to be suspended than white students for the same incident.

Tracking DeVos

Last week, the education secretary spoke at Jeb Bush’s annual education confab. She reiterated that she is not quitting the administration any time soon, gave her usual pitch for school choice, and endorsed the Republican push for changes in tax policy.

Speaking of the tax plan, DeVos was in the news a lot over the weekend — indirectly — as the Senate tax bill passed. It included an expanded tax break for private school tuition and homeschooling expenses, which will largely benefit affluent families. Initially included, but eventually removed: a provision that would have benefit a conservative Michigan college with close ties to DeVos. Keep in mind that this bill is still not law: the House and Senate still need to reconcile their competing versions.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Marcus, Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Civil Rights at DeVos’s Department of Education, faced tough questions from Senate Democrats. Marcus vowed to protect civil rights and follow the law, but some remained skeptical.

And the interim civil rights head, Candice Jackson, will meet with teachers who support the Obama-era school discipline guidance designed to reduce racial disparities in suspensions. Teachers and conservative think tank leaders who want it scrapped have already had a meeting with department officials.

What we’re reading

  • On Success Academy: “It’s … fair to wonder whether, if one out of five young children cannot comply with the rules, there might not be something wrong with the rules.” The New Yorker
  • How much do students grow academically in school districts across the country? Explore here. New York Times
  • An Idaho superintendent was reprimanded after giving all teachers high evaluation marks. Idaho Ed News
  • Charter school advocates often see the D.C. charter board as a model, but some of its practices are coming under scrutiny. Washington City Paper
  • New Orleans’ school district is suing a charter school, saying it refuses to provide students with transportation as promised in its charter contract. WWNO
  • After a long-running battle, the Missouri governor ousted the state school superintendent. St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • As disabled students lose their rights under IDEA by using a voucher to attend a private school, families are often left in the dark. The 74