INSIDE TAKE: Time for Real Talk on Charters

Half the appeal of the best charters is that they are whiter and wealthier than district schools
What does MaST have that Disston doesn't?

What does MaST have that Disston doesn’t?

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)
(Note: This story has been updated to correct an editing error in the graphic that misidentified the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at MaST. For a Citified factcheck on one of Saltz’s central assertions, click here.)

“Our neighborhood public school is just horrendous on every scale of measurement.” This truism, proclaimed with the same certainty as the “the sun rises in the East” or “the Sixers turn the ball over,” leads off a Daily News article previewing what could be a new charter school boom in Philadelphia.

It’s a familiar anecdote: A family reflexively rejects their public school, Disston-Hamilton, for MaST Charter, a “technological wonderland” with a 5,000 student waiting list. All reasonable parties agree (or so the story implies): We need more schools like MaST to keep middle-class families in the city.

Let’s agree: Parents choose different schools for different reasons. A child might benefit from a culturally relevant education at the FACTs charter or a focus on engineering and design at CHAD.

But charters are no longer billed as specialized supplements to district-run schools. Charters now are sold as the better option for all kids. Expand charter schools, the argument goes, and you expand the good in our city.

For years, the SRC had refused to consider applications for new charter schools, claiming –correctly– that the district cannot financially support charter expansion. But that’s about to change. Thanks to some political slap-fighting in Harrisburg (and Philadelphia’s own State Senator Anthony Williams), charter operators are once again free to make their pitch for new schools.

But charters are a simple answer to a complex problem. Which means they are not an answer at all.

The biggest difference between the “horrendous” public school and its charter alternative isn’t the teachers or the curriculum, it’s the student body. ”Elite” charters, like MaST, tend to have student bodies that are significantly more white and much less likely to be enrolled in free lunch than neighborhood schools such as Disston-Hamilton.

I’m certain MaST’s teachers and administrators care deeply about their students. And there are many schools, public and charter, that do a great job serving low income minority families. But the argument you hear from a lot of charter advocates is that schools like MaST serve kids like those at Disston-Hamilton. Looking at the data, that’s simply not true.

Any school that enrolls kids less likely to be dealing with trauma, incarceration, or lack of basic needs, would certainly look “better” by the crude metric of test scores. But remember, the argument is that charters offer a better product, not that they attract a wealthier consumer.

So what’s going on here? How is it that some charters, with lottery admission systems, have student bodies that don’t reflect the communities they serve?

According to the non-profit group Research for Action, certain charters go to great lengths to keep out all but the most vigilant and connected parents. Charters can, and too often do, accept applications only during work hours, or require night visits, or interviews. Some offer English-only applications; some keep their application window open for just one day; some are all but inaccessible by public transit. These are hurdles that would be easy for an upper middle class parent with an office job to clear, but are far more challenging for, say, a recent immigrant with an inflexible work schedule.

It would a be a fascinating experiment to see if Disston-Hamilton’s student body, transplanted en masse to MaST, would quickly produce similar test results. We’ll never know.  MaST is trying to open a second school, and this one would be a neighborhood school, but it would be built somewhere in Center City, drawing from zip codes with altogether different demographics than Disston-Hamilton.

In the all-charter districts like New Orleans, the data shows increased segregation. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in Delaware, alleging that Charter schools are violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The charter movement’s ambition to create city schools that are equal to those in the suburbs is lovely. But what if doing so requires replicating suburban demographics in city schools?

Look, the makeup of MaST’s student body could be totally unintentional; school choice may be a social act, like choosing a hair stylist, instead of a consumer act, like choosing a soft drink. And yes, racist policies like redlining segregated public schools long before charters arrived on the scene. But the School Reform Commission, now hearing 40 of these applications, is supposed to deal with the big policy questions. Resegregation and charter cherry-picking of students should be on the menu, right?

Not likely. In spite of the damage charter growth has done to public schools, these simple solutions have enormous political backing. Charters have been accused of skimming students (that means taking those from stable, middle-class families and passing over more challenged kids) before. The punishment? A feeble promise to address demographic concerns, followed by a speedy re-authorization. Mayoral frontrunner Anthony Williams starts his morning with a smoothie of kale and pro-charter PAC money.

And if money doesn’t work, there’s always demagoguery. Temple Professor Susan Dejarnett recently wrote about the issue of charter schools cherry picking students. David Hardy, a prominent face in the school choice movement, literally accused her of shooting at children. It is notable that Mr. Hardy was silent when Disston-Hamilton, 30% African American and 51% male, was smeared as “horrendous on every scale.”

As a public school teacher, it’s troubling I can’t talk about the issue of schools without being called a hack. As an advocate, it’s terrifying that this issue doesn’t seem to be on the School Reform Commission’s radar. As a parent with a young family, the unspoken premise of too many charter schools is utterly insulting: That the only way to keep families in the city is to make its schools look like suburban ones.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for 8 years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.