Op-Ed: Philly’s Charter School System is Falling Apart

Philadelphia School District Building

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from City Council candidate Helen Gym.)

“As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Those were the infamous words of Citigroup Chief Executive Charles Prince, explaining why, amid the collapse of the world markets, his institution would keep on making risky subprime loans right up to the last minute.

They are words that toll with heavy familiarity as the School District of Philadelphia stubbornly pursues reckless charter school expansion while our public schools crumble.

Last week, Superintendent William Hite announced a sweeping plan for the school district that includes closing two public schools and converting three other city schools into charters.

Never mind that just a few weeks ago Hite declared for a second time that charters in Philadelphia had reached a “saturation point.” Never mind that money that is never available to restore basic services like nurses and counselors — or to end class sizes of 70 students per teacher — can somehow be found to expand charters year after year. And never mind that the charter system itself is rapidly coming apart, with mid-year closures, bankruptcies and bad financing deals rocking an already uneven academic performance landscape.
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Insider: What Philly Mag’s Awful Cover Reveals About School “Choice”

School District of Philadelphia

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. Check Citified next week for a different take from at-large City Council candidate Helen Gym.)

My first reaction to the cover of Philly Mag’s new issue was, wow, they can’t be serious. But that reaction was followed by the realization that the photo ironically represents an unfortunate reality: in Philadelphia, the ability to choose a school for your child – the topic of the issue – too often belongs to those who can afford it, a whiter and wealthier population than the city as a whole.

As the articles show, the school choice process in Philadelphia is really complicated, even for those with the resources to navigate it. There’s a myth that increased options are THE problem; the variety of schools of different types with separate applications have made it too complicated for families. The common refrain goes, “Why can’t we just make all neighborhood schools great? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about navigating choices, applications and deadlines!”

That argument ignores this fact: those with the ability to buy it have always had and taken advantage of school choice. By buying a home in a different school district or paying for a private education, middle and upper-income families like mine have exercised school choice for decades. Today, even in neighborhoods with the strongest neighborhood schools, many families are choosing another public option. For example, according to the most recent data available, less than two-thirds of public school students living in the top-performing Greenfield Elementary neighborhood catchment attend the school, while the other 36 percent are choosing a charter, magnet or transferring to another neighborhood school. And I would bet that a very significant number of families in this Center City neighborhood are choosing a private school.

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The Weekly Brief: How 83 Aliens Are Voting in Philly


1. There Are Dozens of Adarians Registered to Vote in Philly

The gist: Ever heard of Adarians? Oh, you haven’t? Weird. They’re a “species of bipedal humanoids from the planet Adari in the Inner Rim of the galaxy,” according to Wookieepedia, a/k/a/ the Star Wars wiki. They made an appearance in the comic-book adaptation of the Stars Wars novel “The Last Command.” They look nothing like the green guy in that photo above (apologies, Star Wars fans). And, according to an article in the Philadelphia Daily News, there are 83 of them registered to vote in Philly, and 206 signed up throughout the rest of Pennsylvania. Read more »

3 Huge Problems With the Charter School Movement

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from PIDC.]

Philly.com has a story this week that distills many of the troubling qualities of the charter school movement down to a disturbing essence.

Yes, it’s that bad.

This deeply reported piece by Alex Wigglesworth and Ryan Briggs zooms in on one school and one deal: the academically well-regarded String Theory Charter School, which is housed in a high-end eight-story office building at 16th and Vine. This is the same building that not long ago was the North American headquarters for GlaxoSmithKline. It would be eyebrow-raising enough if the taxpayer-funded String Theory were merely leasing such high-end digs. But the school — or, technically, a separate nonprofit run by two of the school’s board members — actually owns the tower, and acquired it through a $55 million tax-exempt bond deal. Read more »

Penn Slips in New Colleges Rankings from U.S. News & World Report

It’s that time of year again — when college students go back to school, see old friends and probably hit the year’s first party. It’s also the time of year when U.S. News & World Report publishes its annual ranking of colleges.

The University of Pennsylvania is always a top contender, but this year had a slip in the rankings. In fact, it was the only school from last year’s top 10 to shift at all, dropping from a tie at No. 8 to No. 9.  Read more »

Insider: Teachers Should Be Opting-Out of Their Own Uninspired Tests



(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

The story of Philadelphia’s schools play like a bad rerun — principals making awful decisions under the threat of even more heinous budget cuts. Governor Wolf and the Philadelphia delegation continue to fight for more. Harrisburg (and some allies in Center City) refuse to give a damn.

But even the most jaded and bored among us should be able to see the appeal of the summer’s compelling new education storyline. It’s got everything: parents and teachers versus gargantuan test companies, privacy implications and huge stakes — nothing less than the direction and focus of the U.S. education system.

The opt-out movement — parents refusing to have their kids take the standardized tests mandated by federal and state governments — is exploding. New York had an opt-out rate of nearly 20 percent in 2015. Long Island in open revolt. Pennsylvania has a small number of objectors overall, but a 220 percent increase over last year shows this is no longer a fringe movement. Philadelphia will even host the national opt-out conference this February. Read more »

Local Schools Make Newsweek List of Top 500 in Nation

Newsweek just released its latest list of the Top 500 high schools in the nation, along with a new “Beating the Odds” list of schools that do a good job of preparing students for college while “overcoming the obstacles posed by students at an economic disadvantage.” Five local schools made the latter list: Charter School of Wilmington, 85th, Lower Merion High School, ranked 167th; Wissahickon Senior High School, 284th, and Multicultural Charter School, 289th, and Franklin Learning Center, 306th, both of which are in Philadelphia. Wilmington, Lower Merion and Wissahickon each earned a special “star” indicating that they help low-income students score at or above average on state assessments.

Local schools appearing on the general Top 500 High Schools list are:  Read more »

Philly-Area Startup Gets $2 Million from Gates Foundation



A local nonprofit education start-up is on the radar of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So much so, that the charitable organization is giving Edcamp Foundation a $2 million grant.

Conshohocken, Pa.-based Edcamp — which was started by 10 Philly-area teachers — is receiving the grant for launching a worldwide campaign of so-called “unconferences” that redefine how educators are trained. In the unconferences, teachers train each other. Read more »

How Philly’s Plummeting Smoking Rate Could Harm Schools



1. Maybe you shouldn’t quit smoking … for the kids. (We kid, we kid.)

The gist: Today, Philadelphia’s new cigarette tax is bringing in the bucks for the city’s schools. The Inquirer reported that in its first nine months, the tax raised $50 million for the school district — which is almost exactly what officials had predicted. During the budget year that just began this July, the tax is expected to reap $60 million. “After that, however, the tax will bring decreasing amounts, according to state and school district officials,” wrote the Inky’s Claudia Vargas. “They expect cigarette sales to decrease by 7 percent in 2016-17 and even more after that.”

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Philly Students Audited Their Own School Lunches

A lunch at  Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture and Design.

A lunch at Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture and Design. | Photo courtesy of City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s office

Scarfing down a fattening, stomach-churning lunch every day used to be seen as a normal part of going to public school in America, as much as riding the bus and going to prom are.

But in recent years, as childhood obesity has skyrocketed, parents, students and health experts have pressured school districts to make healthier, more appetizing meals.

In Philadelphia, concerned students at one charter school took it up a notch and recently decided to audit their own lunches to see if they met federal standards. Read more »

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