Hold onto your hats folks, a man-made “Great Schools” hurricane is about to hit.
San Antonio ISD superintendent Pedro Martinez and his chief of innovation, Mohammed Choudhury have been touting their new System of Great Schools initiative as a means to transform the San Antonio district, and to integrate the city’s segregated public schools. But what is the System of Great Schools? And why is it so controversial here in San Antonio and across the country?
The System of Great Schools approach is the flagship district improvement program from the Texas Education Agency, the Republican-controlled authority running Texas schools. In recent years, school privatization, whether through the increasingly-unpopular voucher movement, or through a renewed focus on “public” charter schools has dominated education reform discourse in Texas. It’s being pushed by Mike Morath, Texas’ Education Commissioner, the man appointed to his current role months after pushing for a “home rule” charter focus in Dallas public schools.
The portfolio model treats a school district’s public schools as an investor would treat their stock portfolio. School boards cease to perform their democratic social function in serving the local electorate, and shift their focus to managing the success of a variety of school options - replicating those considered successful, and, most controversially, closing those which are considered failures. It’s the marketization of public education - a conception of the public sphere that removes the public, and replaces democratic governance with an operating framework straight out of the business world.
While Superintendent Martinez has denied that his System of Great Schools plan is a San Antonio version of the Portfolio Model, that might come as news to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, founders of the City Fund who, as Bekah McNeel reports, in 2017 gave TEA an $85,000 grant specifically to support “the Texas Education Agency’s System of Great Schools Network, a program for districts interested in the portfolio model of school governance.”
“No school ever got better because it was given a D or F grade—that’s a way of setting them up for closure.” (Diane Ravitch)
Indeed, advocates of the Portfolio Model, in its latest incarnation in San Antonio, have focused squarely on advocacy of the “innovations” most frequently critiqued by opponents of school privatization across the United States: markets as drivers of improvement; attacks on teachers’ unions as enemies of progress; one-dimensional conversations about equity and "failing" schools; and a focus on school ratings systems that reflect students’ socioeconomic status more closely than their educational achievement.
The result of these innovations in Texas education is an overwhelming pressure "to reform" public schools by turning them into charters, at least in poor (and Brown) communities. “And that’s the point of, for an example, the A to F grading system”, according to education historian and former Bush Whitehouse Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch. “No school ever got better because it was given a D or F grade—that’s a way of setting them up for closure.”
Where the voucher movement failed to enlist public support, the Portfolio Model is succeeding in redrawing the map of public education in the Lone Star State, and poor urban communities of color are the target.
“There's a number of foundations that are run by right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers, the Walton Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, who have been funding an effort to both lift up portfolio models as a model for school reform, and also as a mechanism for privatizing our schools." (Kyle Serrette)
According to Kyle Serrette, Senior Policy Analyst at the NEA Center for Great Public Schools, the Portfolio Model is “a strategy that has been tried in a few places", New Orleans being the most famous example, “and what they do is they try to take the lowest performing schools and they group them together, typically privatize them, and turn them into a charter school.”
“The hope”, he says, is that the lowest performing 5% of schools move to the top 25%. But, says Serrette, “it hasn't worked yet.”
So who’s pushing for the Portfolio Model of school “reform”?
“There's a number of foundations that are run by right-wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers, the Walton Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, who have been funding an effort to both lift up portfolio models as a model for school reform, and also as a mechanism for privatizing our schools. So they tried vouchers and it didn't work and so now they use charters as the mechanism for it.” And the System of Great Schools is the mechanism by which charters come to be seen as the answer to all of San Antonio’s education problems, from low performance on standardized state assessments, to high numbers of over-age students in district high schools, to economic segregation.
Which is why we shouldn’t be surprised that Martinez and Choudhury have chosen to partner with Paul Pastorek, chair of the board for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, as their System of Great Schools advisor. Pastorek, formerly Superintendent of Education for Louisiana, oversaw the privatization of New Orleans public schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an emblematic and oft-cited example of disaster capitalism with disastrous results for poor people of color in the city.
“They typically hire a group to come in and do a report that says that there's no equity and that creating a portfolio or charter model would work, but right now there is no evidence that it has worked.” (Kyle Serrette)
It takes a disaster, like that in New Orleans or Puerto Rico, to create the political terrain necessary to privatize cherished public institutions like public schools. What is the disaster that is creating space for the latest attack on Texas public schools? Texas’ new A-F ratings - a political hurricane engineered to create the conditions under which public school districts are offered an unpopular and anti-democratic choice: close “failing” public schools, or turn them over to charters.
And how do school privatization advocates push the portfolio model as the means to undermine local democratic control of public schools?
According to Serrette, “they typically hire a group to come in and do a report that says that there's no equity and that creating a portfolio or charter model would work”.
In the last few months, we’ve seen SAISD at the center of a concerted, high profile public relations offensive waged by a pro-charter, pro-privatization media organization funded by the biggest billionaire names in school privatization. This public relations campaign has consistently depicted Martinez and Choudhury’s plans as a crusade to desegregate San Antonio's public schools.
It’s worth asking why some of America’s richest elites would, suddenly, be so interested in ending education segregation in America’s seventh-largest city. Why donors usually more interested in undermining American democracy and avoiding paying their fair share of taxes would suddenly be so enthusiastic about advocating for equity for poor populations of color in urban Texas. Why elites who spend billions to undermine meaningful democratic government are suddenly so interested in teacher, parent, and community “empowerment” in San Antonio’s poorest communities.
The answers are all-too obvious when you consider the dollar value of school privatization in America. As Diane Ravitch argues, "what’s going on right now is an effort to turn what is a public responsibility into a free market exercise. We’ve already seen the privatization movement take hold in the prison system, we’ve seen it take hold in the hospital system, and there are lots of other areas of public life where people are looking for an opportunity to make big bucks. And now their focus is on education as being a moneymaker and a place to invest and turn a profit."
Big business school "reformers" are using a conversation about desegregation to push for the end of public control of San Antonio's public schools.
Don't be fooled.