The same day something very scary happened: a non-profit organization offered $35 million to improve schools in Philadelphia.
While the judgements sound different, the story is the same. The Philadelphia School Partnership, or PSP (a controversial organization sponsored by private donors and foundations to expand "high-performing K-12 schools of any type") offered this money to the School District of Philadelphia to increase charter school enrollment in the city. As someone who has been keeping track of the goings-on in the City of Brotherly Love I posted this article on Facebook with my thoughts: that it is something scary and abhorrent. Not every person on my newsfeed is as closely connected to Philadelphia, so naturally there were questions.
To understand the implication of this donation it is important to first understand the context of the School District of Philadelphia. Over the past 15 years it has gone from being a locally-run District consisting of about 200,000 students going to all District-run schools to 2015 where about 130,000 students attend District-run schools and 67,000 students attend charter schools. Obviously these numbers leave out private and parochial schools but our conversation is focused mostly on the former two categories.
Funding for the entire District has been reduced immensely over the past five years, since former PA Governor Tom Corbett removed almost $1 billion from the state education budget. Teachers have been laid off, the number of librarians has been reduced to 11 in the entire city, school budgets have been slashed, etc. My own personal story involves being pushed around between three schools in my first three years of teaching due to political and budgetary constraints.
Funding for charter schools is even more upsetting. Their money is mandated by the state to be turned over by the local School District once the charter has been approved. The money comes in a specific formula and due to the fact that there are "stranded costs" or "fixed costs" to the District (i.e. building costs, electricity and gas bills, etc) money is easily lost in this transition.
Fast-forward to this week when Mark Gleason, the director of PSP, offers the money. The School Reform Commission - in charge of running and maintaining the schools of the city - is in very dire financials straits. If they decide to take the money, they are agreeing to increase the amount of charter school seats in the District, potentially tipping it to become a majority-charter location. Their argument for the provision of this money is directly related to the stranded costs the District incurs with the transfer of students.
This may sound like a good compromise until you think about the longterm implications of this funding.
When originally proposed in the 1980s and 1990s, charter schools were supposed to be places of experiment that would be unionized but allow more flexibility and teacher leadership. Instead, over the past 10 years they have been turned into a for-profit business, sponsored by education reformers across the country (and the world). Many of the schools use "no excuses" models that push out more difficult students that are not mandated to be replaced, unlike District schools that have to fill their rolls no matter what. Over times, what this means is more students who may have higher test scores but fewer social skills and true persistence in learning. Additionally, many charter schools are proving to be corrupt enterprises with leaders embezzling money.
One might argue that these charter schools simply need more oversight, and I would agree. Unfortunately, in Philadelphia there is a staff of 3-4 people overseeing a student population that is bigger than Pittsburgh's entire school system! That makes it very difficult to close ineffective charter schools.
I would urge all of you to listen to the 40-minute radio show wherein Donna Cooper of PCCY and Mark Gleason of PSP debate the current offer and its merits. Specifically, listen to the following time slots:
11:22 - the mention of how charter schools do not replace drop-outs.
18:45 - Mark Gleason implies charter schools had large influence on District gains over the past 10 years
21:45 - Reiteration that there are only 11 full-time librarians in a school system of 130,000 students.
26:50 - Mark Gleason trips up and says schools are a "people focused BUSINESS" (emphasis mine)
There is so much money flowing around education reforms at the moment that are unfairly influencing public systems. A new Political Action Committee is being formed to support charter schools as well.
I suppose the only solace I have at the moment is that Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, is running for City Council and has already received an accolade from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. I can only hope she succeeds.