The Brief: Decision Impossible—the SRC’s Lose-Lose Situation

Pressured on all sides over a binary decision on charter school growth.

School District of Philadelphia

I understand that sympathy for the School Reform Commission is in short supply. But man, the SRC is on the spot in an excruciating way right now, pressured on one side by Gov. Wolf, on another by GOP Speaker of the House Mike Turzai and well-funded ed reform advocates, and on a third by crushing and unrelenting financial considerations. It’s a Bermuda Triangle, and I’m not sure how they escape it.

At issue, of course, is the fate of 39 charter school applications. The district hasn’t approved a new standalone charter school in seven years. There is, to put it mildly, extreme pent-up demand for new charters.

So why not just greenlight the best of the best from those 39 applicants? Because charter expansion impoverishes the district in a big way. Every time the district loses a kid to a new charter school, it loses cash (as much as $7,000 per kid, according to some estimates). That means new charters deepen the district’s fiscal crisis, which creates still-crappier conditions in district-run schools, which fuels still-greater charter demand. It’s a vicious cycle.

Enter the Philadelphia School Partnership, with a surprise $35 million sweetener for the district, if, that is, the approves enough new charters to enroll 11,000 students in those new schools over the next three years. Though not nearly enough to cover the long-term costs for the district of losing those students, it’s still a lot of money.

And in political terms, it’s an offer the SRC will be hard-pressed to refuse, particularly with a) some genuinely excellent charter operators applying to open new schools and b) Turzai hinting not so subtly that the district needs to approve new charters by the bushel, or else… (the implicit threat is the district will get no help from the General Assembly, unless the SRC yields on charters).

Not to mention the actual merits of the arguments both sides are making. Not exactly an easy call there either…

Charter Advocates: Our best operators do an amazing job, and there is overwhelming parent demand for the education they provide. How can you say no, and deny thousands of kids great educations?

District School Advocates: Which kids are we talking about, exactly? Those who don’t get or don’t want a spot in these new charters will be in schools that are financially worse off if the charters are permitted to open. Charters will never educate all kids, so how can we condone a system that punishes district schools every time charters grow?

For the mayoral race, all this simply means that, as expected, the schools debate—particularly the charter vs. district-run standoff—will unavoidably remain the premier issue of the campaign. Candidates are going to be forced by advocates on both sides to get very specific, very soon, on exactly where they stand.

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