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

Gym: The last thing this city needs is a top-down mandate to turn more public schools into charters.

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.

Ninety days into a state budget stalemate, our children attend schools with zero state funding for the current year and without the essential resources they need. But school choice cheerleaders continue on a reckless tear to create two separate and unsustainable school systems that defies data and economic sanity.

“It’s not like [the money is] just coming out of the air. It has to come from the other students,” said former School Reform Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky in explaining his opposition to reckless charter expansion.

Take for example, the district’s signature investment into Renaissance charter schools, the practice of turning public schools over to charter operators. Despite a budget crisis, these charter conversions have become the most rapid means of charter expansion in the last five years. The district has invested little effort in substantively analyzing the program, which is especially baffling considering these troubling indicators:

  • Questionable performance: Three of the seven public schools that were converted into charters in 2010 face repercussions by the SRC this year due to poor performance. Two are recommended for non-renewal and another has already forfeited its charter contract to a different operator due to failing academics. Yet another charter school switched operators last year after its for-profit management company went bankrupt. SRC Commissioner Feather Houston, in a rare acknowledgement of the program’s shortcomings, summed it up: “I was struck with the notion that we needed a turnaround in a turnaround.”
  • Unaccountable costs: Charters are now the largest cost driver in the district, outstripping increases in pensions and benefits. Recently, the district admitted that each charter conversion costs up to $4,000 more per pupil in “stranded” costs. That’s millions of dollars spent when a school is under a charter contract, but that somehow can’t be spent when a school is under district control. The district has yet to fully explain or justify these costs.
  • Deepening racial segregation: The school district’s population of African-American students is just over 50 percent and shrinks with every charter conversion. The charter system’s African-American student population is over 60 percent and grows by significant margins with every charter conversion. Shuttering students’ public schools and forcing them into an erratic and unstable charter system is not the hallmark of a path toward equity and quality.
  • Lack of community engagement: Parents and school communities are routinely surprised by the announcement of proposed charter conversions, endure a rushed process, and have mostly had extremely limited roles in shaping their new schools. You can’t engage communities when change is something that happens to them, rather than with them.

As a charter founder myself, I believe there is a discrete and limited role for charters within a vibrant public school system. But maintaining two massive school systems simply isn’t working in a state that ranks the worst in the nation around funding equity — and hasn’t worked anywhere in this country. This isn’t just the viewpoint of activists. Financial analysts, academics and watchdog organizations are raising concerns about economic sustainability, deepening racial segregation, democratic input and erratic academic performance.

The district’s top-down mandate to create more charters leaves out a key component for sustainable school transformation — community engagement. It’s not just that community engagement is democratic and responsible; community engagement helps us make better decisions in a school reform experiment that is still largely unproven.

Among the loudest voices in providing an alternative vision to the standard ed reform playbook have been parents at targeted schools. Last year, parents at two elementary schools overwhelmingly voted down proposals to convert their schools into charters. In declaring their opposition, parents talked about investments in school stability, community process, and the right to a public school in an otherwise all-charter neighborhood. It’s telling how quickly the district left these families behind. After all, the money that was so readily available for private management never materialized once parents voted to remain public with a voice in the decision-making process.

The district could choose to engage school communities, instead of imposing reform initiatives upon them. The district could choose to delay its plans to convert more public schools into charters and first seek partnerships with parents, teachers and students — partnerships they need more than ever in their constant budget battles in City Council and the General Assembly.

We know our communities want an investment in quality public schools. In the most recent state and municipal elections, the candidates who won were those who promised to fight for education funding and against vouchers and privatization. It’s certainly why I decided to run for City Council.

It’s time to move beyond school choice policies that take us further away from a mission of equity and community engagement. If we’re going to truly transform our schools, we need to prioritize community engagement as well as a public education vision for all children in our city.

Helen Gym is a co-founder of the Public School Notebook and Parents United for Public Education. In May, she won the Democratic nomination for City Council At-Large and will run in November in the general election.