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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)

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)

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

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.