Mayoral Candidates Pan $35 Million Offer To Expand Charters

The hopefuls have questions about the Philadelphia School Partnership's controversial proposal.

School District of Philadelphia

The School Reform Commission has a tough choice to make: Should it accept the Philadelphia School Partnership’s offer of $35 million? In return for the big check, the PSP wants the SRC to authorize enough new charter schools to enroll up to 15,000 students.

That’s a difficult decision because the district loses money every time a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter. The PSP says the donation is intended to “take the cost issue off the table.” But the offer doesn’t actually do that, as Citified’s Patrick Kerkstra explained last week:

PSP estimates that the district loses about $2,000 every time a student enrolls at a charter school. The district, meanwhile, has been estimating its per-student charter costs as $7,000. That’s quite a delta. The district’s estimate may be wrong, but if not, a $2,000 coupon off a $7,000 expense falls well short of taking the cost issue “off the table.”

That’s an understatement. The district has since estimated it would cost the district a whopping half-billion dollars if 15,000 kids enrolled at new charter schools.

We asked the mayoral candidates last week if they believe the SRC should take the $35 million offer. (For those counting, former City Councilman Jim Kenney released a statement before we asked for one.) Here’s what they had to say:

Lynne Abraham: In a statement, she said, “The proposal of the Philadelphia School Partnership to provide $35 million dollars to the Philadelphia public school district may be no gift at all. It may be another way to give more money to the charter schools at the expense of Philadelphia’s public schools. They seem to be offering a gift to pay for charter school expenses. But are they really, once again, defunding our city’s public schools? If school district estimates are correct, by accepting the $35 million, the Philadelphia school system would be on the hook for as much as $500 million, for the cost of opening the additional charter schools. This subject deserves a full, genuine investigation. Our kids deserve better. Our city deserves better. Our kids should not be pawns of people who want to make millions in the charter school industry. On my watch, our schools will not be for sale. I will be nobody’s mayor but yours.”

Nelson Diaz: He wrote a letter to the PSP, which he released Monday. It said, in part, “I am writing to urge you to take the $35,000,000 you offered to fund a small portion of the cost to expand charter schools in our city and instead spend it on after-school or extracurricular programs open to all of Philadelphia’s youth, regardless of what type of school they enroll in. Your offer is a loaded, ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ ultimatum with too many strings attached. Instead of treating kids like a political football, you could partner with community organizations. … I view charter schools as small, supplemental test-beds for experimentation, not as a wholesale replacement for traditional public schools. They have their place, but they are not a substitute for an entire system. And at a time when our school district is in fiscal crisis, I cannot support opening any new charters that would drain resources out of public school classrooms.”

Jim Kenney: In a statement, he said, “Our school district should not accept PSP’s $25 million. Not only does that offer cover a fraction of the nearly $500 million required to enroll just 15,000 more students in charters, but the donations come from unnamed millionaires who already have far too great an influence in our upcoming mayoral election. These millionaires are far more concerned with the financial stake they have to gain from public dollars flowing into pro-voucher programs and privately run charters than they are with ‘school choice.’ As mayor, I will work with Governor Wolf to stand up to those who would seek to profit off our children by privatizing our education system.”

Doug Oliver: In a statement, he said, “I think that the financial offer from PSP to the school district sends a encouraging signal that there is an understanding of what happens to the school district when charter school enrollment increases. It is not yet clear to me why there is a $5,000 delta [between the amount of money the district says it loses when a student moves to a charter — $7,000 — and how much the PSP says it loses — $2,000], but that will obviously need to be ironed out. Assuming no additional money is being offered, and understanding that the 11,000 student enrollment figure is negotiable, it would seem to me that an acceptable next step is for the district to crunch some numbers and identify what $35 million buys (spread out over the reasonable number of years that the school district would be incurring stranded costs). If PSP’s intent is to make it cost-neutral, then the solution should actually be cost-neutral — which may mean fewer charters approved or fewer students enrolled in the ones that are. Either way, when an offer of $35 [million] is made in an effort to educate kids without harming others, I think it warrants full discussion. I just don’t think there’s enough information available just yet.”

Milton Street: We asked Street via Facebook Messenger if the district should accept the PSP’s officer.”I think they should not,” he said. Asked if he wanted to elaborate, Street simply said, “No.”

Anthony Williams: In a statement, he said, “The school district needs more funding, and Philadelphia public school students will benefit from those additional dollars, especially as they do not draw from additional school resources. We must ensure that the funding stream is revenue-neutral or net-positive, and three years may not be enough time. We must also couple these funds with reinstating the charter reimbursement and a fair funding formula to get the resources we need for every student and put the district in better fiscal shape going forward.”