Will the Philadelphia School District Become Chartered Territory?

The charter-school showdown continues.

By Matt Petrillo
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Nov. 9, 2011

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School of hard knocks: The John Wanamaker Junior High School at 12th and Montgomery streets is undergoing a $250 million renovation. The south side of the former public school will, in part, be constructed into a charter school.

Photo by Matt Petrillo

It’s been 11 weeks since the School Reform Commission unanimously voted to fire public school boss lady Arlene Ackerman. The former superintendent may be gone, yet tensions between community members and the SRC are far from over, especially since the committee is in the midst of closing more public schools and replacing them with charter schools.

Inside Building 440 on North Broad Street last week, anger was stewing and about to reach its boiling point. Sitting in front of the SRC—a currently crippled three-person committee that is designed for five—were armies of agitated community members, baffled students and indignant parents, bracing in suspense for a reality they knew had been coming. Student enrollment has dropped, revenues are down and maintaining the district’s 249 schools—some of which are nearly half-empty—isn’t sustainable. Leroy Nunery, the acting superintendent and Ackerman’s old right-hand-man, waits two hours into the meeting, at 5 p.m., to announce that the SRC is considering closing nine schools, and many more could be on the way.

“We don’t want to leave assets and buildings stranded,” Nunery says.

The news isn’t surprising. School district data show just 47 percent of schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in the 2010-2011 school year, a sluggish improvement over recent years. The school district also announced in February that it had 70,000 vacant seats. Enrollment in Philly’s public schools has been steadily dropping, from 200,000 in 2001 to about 154,000 in 2010 and to just 146,090 today. Meanwhile, enrollment in charter schools has catapulted from 12,000 in 2001 to 44,000 last year, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. Today, about 46,000 students are enrolled in the city’s 80 charter schools.

“They have to start closing and consolidating [public] schools and really manage the decline of the school district, because charters are going to take over,” Councilman At-Large Bill Green said last May during a budget hearing for the school district. “And frankly, they do a much better job.”

School District officials hope to save between $500,000 and $1 million a year by closing some schools and consolidating 14,465 seats. They hope to consolidate 35,000 seats by 2014.

But public school advocates hope to reverse the charter trend by capitalizing on charters’ weaknesses. For instance, public school advocates, like the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other teacher unions, blasted charters after an April 2011 study from Stanford found that 17 percent of Pennsylvania charters schools are performing better than public schools. Fifty percent are the same and 33 percent are doing worse. They chanted “I told ya so” after the Office of the Controller reviewed the city’s charter schools and released a report in April 2010 that found 13 charters abused taxpayer money due to financial mismanagement, fraud and questionable spending practices, largely because of a lack of school district oversight.

“There are good charters and there are bad charters,” Green says. “There are good public schools and bad public schools. The difference is that public schools don’t close. Charter schools can and should close if [they’re] not performing well. That act of enforcement hasn’t been done by the SRC.”

But that’s changing now. In fact, according to Green, it’s just a matter of time until the district collapses and an entirely new model takes over (he particularly likes the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York). He often goes to SRC meetings, inconspicuously tucked into the back corner, jotting down notes or whispering to an aide. He’s predicted—and called for—public school closings for a long time.

“The point of school is to prepare children in Philadelphia for life,” he says, adding that having a district with close to a 50 percent graduation rate isn’t doing that. “That’s a broken system. Perpetuating that system without providing competition doesn’t make sense if it’s about the children and not about the grown ups.”

As charters continue to replace public schools, the power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been weakening. The 17,000-member union is the city’s largest, but it lost about 4,000 teachers over the past decade. With the loss of members comes a loss of thousands of dollars of dues the union would have collected, since most charter schools do not have unions.

“Certainly the charter schools caused our number to decline,” says PFT President Jerry Jordan. “If you put the city’s charter schools together in one district, they’d be the second largest district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Not all public school teachers despise charters. Hope Moffett—the Audenried High School teacher who was sent to teacher-jail (the place teachers are sent if they are about to receive disciplinary action) after speaking out about the school district—had her job saved because of the PFT’s efforts to not let an intimidating school district bully teachers.

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from the mid-’70s to the late ’90s, also endorsed charters, leading what was at the time a progressive movement.

Yet teacher unions are now on the defensive, because, Jordan says, “charters changed from their original intent.” Some have. Those with selective admissions are far from the core of the “public” part of public education.

But the growing surge of charters should allow for more community input into how to best restructure Philadelphia’s education system, and they at least offer more accountability than public schools. For instance, Stetson Middle School in Kensington was publicly run until last year, when it was handed over to ASPIRA PA, a nonprofit charter company calling itself an “investment in Latino youth.” While it operated as a public school, teachers filed about 500 suspensions and 20 expulsions, labeling the school persistently dangerous. Last year, run by ASPIRA, teachers filed four suspensions and one expulsion. And students increased in math performance by 22 points and in reading by eight.

The numbers are impressive, but Jordan says that schools shouldn’t promote any particular ethnicity. “We go back to our separate and unequal system that we had in this country since Brown v. Board of [Education],” he says. The school, not operated by a lottery system, is inclusive of its community. Stetson’s principal did not return calls to PW .

The proposed closures of the nine schools reflect a trend happening across the nation, largely due to the influence of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who praises charters. But the PFT still stands as the city’s largest union and has maintained its political muscle. Its recent endorsement of Mayor Nutter during the city’s primaries could put pressure on him to influence the SRC and slow down school closures.

Green says that’s already been happening. Over the past three years, he says the SRC has put a “moratorium” on new charters. “Last year, the SRC didn’t even put out applications for charter schools,” Green adds.

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Marian said... on Nov 10, 2011 at 09:53AM

“Albert Shanker originally endorsed charters that were run by teachers as incubators of innovative instruction and research on effective instruction. After he saw them being turned into bastions of political and self interests, he changed his mind about supporting them. Now they are often used for the profit of those who have manipulated themselves into positions of operating charter schools.

There are issues upon issues that must be sorted and fact from fiction. It seems myth and reality have become quite clouded in this debate.

I suggest that everyone who wants to educate themselves about the issues and research read Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." She is an education historian who helped write NCLB. Now she has stepped back and written a research based critical review of how the choice movement has actually played out.

I also suggest that everyone reads, Whose School Is It? the Democratic Imperative for Our Schools, by Rich Migliore.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Nov 10, 2011 at 10:31AM

“The numbers speak and people vote with their feet.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 12:35AM

“We also have aq problem with charter schools abusing the H1-B visa programs. Is there really a shortage of Amercian Teachers in this country esp when public schools have been closed all over the country? I think not. Google Gulen Charter Schools And Google Gulen H1-B visa fraud. Your taxes are also paying for some of them who show to work two days week while attending a Iniversity at full pay. Gotta love that cult !!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 12:54AM

“The problem with the closure of the nine schools in question is that none of them actually have close to the "empty seats" claimed. The district is listing gyms, auditoriums, art, ESOL and special ed classrooms as "empty," when most are in operation throughout the day. Two of the schools that are closing consistently make AYP, which, as the article points out, is far from the norm in Philly. Why close schools that work?

As for Councilman Green, it's good to know that he doesn't support public schools. Just another reason not to support him (besides his promise to vote against a property tax hike that he voted for less than 24 hours later).”

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5. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 08:05AM


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6. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 08:11AM

“Sir, your brain must be dead if you really believe the Stetson scores. THINK--does it even make sense and I mean common sense. Unless it was a miracle along the lines of the loaves and fishes, it's an obvious lie and you apparently are buying into it !!! Use the brain that God gave you.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 08:14AM

“You also misquoted the current position of Albert Shanker. How dare you do that or didn't you even check?? Unless you're being paid by charters, you are too silly for me to comment further.”

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8. Jennie Shanker said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 09:56AM

“Marian is correct about my father's position, and the most recent Ravich book should be taken very seriously.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 02:46PM

“Yes, the so called Choice Movement, has evolved into a scheme for the politicians and their rich buddies to drain money designed for the poor to themselves. Educating kids is only an after thought, at best. Diane Ravich's book is a must read. Charters are nothing more than scams. Maybe they started out with good intentions--maybe not--but NOW, there is no question about their focus and it ain't even remotely about kids.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 05:18PM


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11. Mark L. said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 10:17PM

“The writer of this article is either in the pocket of charters or the silliest, least aware person on the planet. Bill Green's Dad would turn over in his grave if he heard his namesake make those comments. The PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM is a right and we better not lose sight of that tenet. I agree with the above--how can anybody with sense believe those Stetson Scores?? They overstepped and made a fool out of themselves. There is NO WAY those scores are legitimate and again, anybody with testing experience, knows it and just laughs it off as folly.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Nov 11, 2011 at 10:26PM

“More and more charter insiders are blowing their cover. As charter employees decide to have RIGHTS, the providers and the politicians who put them there, will start to get exposed as the corrupt carpetbaggers that they are. They don't want unions so they can increase their profit margin and keep people down like dogs. It won't work, of course, thankfully. I'm NOT saying that all charters are a joke but they were ALL started to make money for the pols and their friends and the money was/is designed for the poor and lower middle classes as in Public Schools. Isn't it curious that the charter schools gravitate towards the inner cities where the poor are too disorganized and desperate to fight them off. These scoundrels better hope there is no God.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Nov 12, 2011 at 06:27AM

“There is something wrong with a system that doesn't trust local input,(SRC), spends public money to fund money making ventures (charter schools) and doesn't look at the root cause of poor student achievement (poverty and joblessness)”

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14. Anonymous said... on Nov 12, 2011 at 09:32AM

“#12 and #13--------I totally agree with both of you. Charters are a farce and we shouldn't be funding them at the expense of real PUBLIC schools. Yes, until the poverty cycle ends, the inner city folks will continue to be abused by carpetbaggers in all directions. I also agree fully with those Stetson Scores--How foolish!!!!!!!!”

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15. Anonymous said... on Nov 12, 2011 at 10:05AM

“If you don't believe the changes at Stetson MS go walk the hallways (#11) and see the students in their classrooms engaged in meaningful educational pusuits. Was that happening under the school district?? I agree that not all charters are good but don't paint them all with the same brush.”

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16. mitchstein said... on Nov 17, 2011 at 12:16PM

“If I see the math correctly there are 20,000 less students enrolled in schools in philly?”


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